Multiple measures lead to better outcomes

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The use of multiple measures for placement results in more students taking college-level English and math, according to a new study by the Center for the Analysis of Postsecondary Readiness (CAPR). And students who are placed in college-level courses are more likely to complete those courses, it added.

Most community colleges use standardized placement tests to determine if students are ready for college-level courses or need remedial help to catch up, CAPR notes. But colleges that use multiple measures to assess college readiness – combining placement test results with high school grade point averages and other measures – allowed more students to go straight into college-level courses.

Regardless of whether they were predicted to succeed or not, CAPR found students did better when they were assigned to college-level courses. Students bumped up into college-level courses using multiple measures were able to complete college-level English and math courses at substantially higher rates than similar students in a control group who had to start in developmental, or remedial, courses, the report said.

In fact, even students predicted by a multiple-measures algorithm to need developmental courses did better as a group when allowed to start in college-level courses, the study found.

Avoiding the remediation trap

“We recommend that colleges default to placing students into college-level courses when they’re on the fence about whether or not they’re ready,” said co-author Elisabeth Barnett, a senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center, which leads CAPR along with the independent research organization MDRC. “Our study adds to the evidence for putting a broader swath of community college students in college-level math and English.”

The study followed nearly 13,000 students for up to five semesters who entered one of seven State University of New York (SUNY) community colleges in fall 2016, spring 2017 or fall 2017. The participating community colleges are Cayuga, Jefferson, Niagara County, Onondaga, Rockland, Schenectady County and Westchester.

Students were randomly assessed for college readiness using the college’s standardized placement test – most commonly the Accuplacer test – or an algorithm that weighted several factors to predict success in college-level courses. Those factors included test scores and high school GPA.

Nationally, about two-thirds of community college students take at least one developmental course. Earlier CCRC research, confirmed by the CAPR study, found placement tests are inaccurate and place too many students into developmental courses. That costs them money and slows their progress to a degree.

Moreover, many students who begin college by taking developmental coursework never complete a college credential, CAPR said.

Across the country, colleges are working to develop different strategies to help students who may have difficulty with college-level work, such as corequisite courses and math pathways. Other CAPR studies are investigating some of those strategies.

Key findings

  • The multiple-measures system improved rates of placement into, enrollment in and completion of college-level courses in English across all semesters studied for the overall study sample.
  • Placement in college-level English jumped 34 percentage points, from 46% to 80% of students.
  • In math, all of these metrics improved for the first semester, but effects on enrollment and completion faded or disappeared by subsequent semesters.
  • Multiple-measures placement resulted in more students bumped up into college-level courses than bumped down into developmental courses. That confirmed the prediction that more students could succeed more than their test scores suggested.
  • In math, 16% of students placed using multiple measures moved into a college-level course, and 10% moved down to a remedial course. In English, 44% were bumped up and 7% were bumped down.
  • Students who moved up into college-level courses because of multiple measures were 8 to 10 percentage points more likely to complete a college-level math or English course within three semesters.
  • Students who were bumped down into developmental courses were 8 to 10 percentage points less likely to complete a college-level math or English course within three semesters.
  • All subpopulations examined in the study (with the exception of men in math) had higher rates of placement into college-level courses using the multiple-measures system.

Money saved

The alternative placement system also saved students about $160 in tuition and fees because they took fewer credits, the study said. Because multiple-measures placement resulted in many fewer enrollments in remedial courses, the total cost was $280 less per student.

“This study sheds light on an important way to smooth the road for students entering college,” CAPR said. “Rather than using standardized placement tests alone, colleges can develop and deploy a multiple-measures placement system that does a better job of assessing students’ readiness for math and English courses at a relatively low cost. The use of a multiple-measures placement system, in tandem with other meaningful initiatives, can make a real contribution toward improving student success in college.”

CAPR plans to release a follow-up report in 2022 providing outcomes for students in the study up to 10 semesters following placement.

About the Author

Ellie Ashford
is associate editor of Community College Daily.