I was under the foolish impression that young people who did well on standardized tests such as the SATs stand a good chance of going to college and working towards a degree. What I didn’t realize is the importance of other exams known as “placement tests.”

In an investigative piece in the new print edition of the Washington Monthly, however, Susan Headden reports on the problematic tests I scarcely knew existed. The editors’ summary of the cover story helps set the stage for a really interesting article:

Every year millions of students sign up to attend community colleges and, after paying a fee, sit down at computer terminals to take “placement tests” which, they are assured, will be used simply to “see where they are” academically. In fact, they are unwittingly taking a test that could end their college dreams right then and there.

Placement tests determine whether students are put into college-level courses for credit or “remedial” classes, for which they earn no credit and from which few students ever emerge. Unlike the SAT, there’s little chance to prep for or retake placement tests, and research suggests they are poor predictors of academic success. But the biggest difference is this: If you bomb the SAT, the worst thing that can happen is you can’t go to the college of your choice. If you bomb a placement test, you effectively can’t go to college at all.

In an illuminating investigative report, Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Susan Headden details how poorly-designed and often-misused placement tests, combined with a dysfunctional remedial education system, block millions of otherwise-capable lower-income students from getting the college educations they need — and what a better system would look like.

Read “How the Other Half Tests” here.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.