Considering Grades, Not Just Tests, in College Course Placement Pays Off

By Catherine Gewertz — September 20, 2018 3 min read
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Many colleges use one test to decide whether incoming freshmen have to take remedial courses, a turning point that can slow down—or block—their progress toward graduation. But a new study shows that throwing out the one-test approach can propel more students into—and through—credit-bearing courses.

The study, released Thursday, focuses on 4,729 students who enrolled in seven community colleges in New York in the fall of 2016. Those colleges decided to use multiple factors in deciding whether to place students in remedial courses. They kept using their traditional placement tests, which in most cases is the popular Accuplacer.

But they also used algorithms they created, based on information from earlier groups of students, that could help them predict students’ success in college-level courses. The algorithms included factors such as students’ high school grade point averages, how much time elapsed between their graduation and college enrollment, and in some cases, state test scores or class rank.

When colleges used that approach, their assignments of students to credit-bearing classes increased by more than 30 percentage points in English and 5 percentage points in math.

The approach didn’t just affect class assignments. It affected course completion. Students who were placed into credit-bearing courses through the multiple-measures approach were 12.5 percentage points more likely to enroll in, and pass, college-level English courses and 3 points more likely to do so in college-level math courses in their first semester than students who were assigned to classes through only a placement test.

The findings arrive as educators search for effective ways to address high rates of remediation in college.

Federal statistics show that two-thirds of community college students, and 4 in 10 students at four-year colleges, take at least one remedial course. Research suggests that many of those students could actually succeed in credit-bearing classes. Taking so-called “developmental” classes instead can mean a longer and costlier road to a college degree. And it raises the odds that students get discouraged and drop out.

Elisabeth A. Barnett, the lead researcher on the study, said the findings carry a message for high schools as they discuss the best ways to build and measure college readiness.

It could be, Barnett said, that grade-point-average is a better proxy than any single test for the things that are most important for succeeding in college courses.

“High school GPA shows content knowledge, and baked into it are the noncognitive things students also have to be good at, like turning in assignments, showing up on time, being able to satisfy course requirements,” she said.

How to Keep Students From Taking ‘Courses They Don’t Need’

The study showed that many students got higher placement results when multiple measures were used. In math, 14 percent of the students got higher placements through multiple measures than with a standardized test, 7 percent got lower placements, and 79 percent got the same placements. In English, 41.5 percent got higher placements, 6.5 percent got lower placements, and 52 percent got the same placements as they would have with a single test.

The study was conducted by the Center for the Analysis of Postsecondary Readiness, a partnership of researchers led by the Community College Research Center and MDRC. The researchers helped the colleges create the predictive algorithms to use in placing students. Their findings represent only the first round in the project, on an initial cohort of 4,729 students.

The team is examining additional impacts of the new approach on the entire study group of 13,000 students who entered the seven colleges in 2016 and 2017, including how well they accrue credit and how long they stay in college, and plans to report them next year.

“We will know more about longer term outcomes at the end of the study, but at the very least, we know that multiple-measures placement can spare many students from taking courses they don’t need,” Barnett said in a statement released with the study.

The report notes that using the multiple-measures approach was more complex than the single-test system. It also added an average of $110 per student to the costs of testing and placement in the first term. That cost dropped to $40 per student in the second term.

You can see the full report here, and an executive summary here.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.