Moving toward multiple assessments for placement

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State systems can play an important role by providing guidance and resources to community colleges that want to expand the measures they use to assess whether students need developmental education, according to a new brief from the Center for the Analysis of Postsecondary Readiness at Columbia University.

Community college leaders have for many years talked about moving away from single-source placement tests to other ways to measure whether students should be placed in developmental education courses, including looking at high school grade point averages. And while a substantial number of two-year colleges have moved toward relying less on single tests, others have stayed with them.

However, with the pandemic limiting the use of in-person standardized tests, some of those colleges have opted to use other ways to assess students, according to the brief. The center examined how four states — Indiana, Virginia, Texas and Washington — changed placement policies and supported new placement practices in the midst of the pandemic. The case studies look at common challenges in using multiple measures for assessment, such as facilitating buy-in, providing implementation support, fighting initiative fatigue and establishing data-informed evaluation processes.

Finding ways to overcome challenges

Many researchers note that single-source assessments don’t accurately gauge students’ ability to do college-level work in math and English, and, as a result, many students are placed in development courses rather than college-level courses. Students of color and low-income students are disproportionally referred to developmental education programs, the brief says.

CAPR researchers note that switching to multiple assessments requires resources at a time when colleges are already stretched. College staff and faculty may also feel initiative burnout from the growing number of programs implemented to improve student success, they say. However, state systems can mitigate these challenges and promote effective practices by adopting strategic policies and providing supports to colleges, they note.

Among the key findings in the brief: Colleges that want to benefit from a multiple-measures assessment must commit to a placement scheme that places more students into college-level courses than would have been placed using a single measure. The brief outlines how Ivy Tech Community College did this in fall 2020 by expanding its use of the EdReady program across its 45 campuses and sites. Students can use their initial assessment results to determine their course placement, or they can receive an “individual, personalized study path composed of learning activities they can work on in the EdReady platform to place into a higher-level course,” according to the brief.

“As part of the scale-up, Ivy Tech strove to foster an asset-based mindset regarding placement with a focus on the knowledge and skills students already possess when they enroll in the institution,” the brief says.

Moving forward

Meanwhile, all institutions in the Virginia Community College System (VCCS) began using self-reported high school GPA during the pandemic as the primary placement measure for recent high school graduates. Tapping lessons learned from a pilot program, the system provided guidance and resources to its colleges in the scale-up, including student questionnaires to help nontraditional students place themselves and a memo to colleges on conducting direct enrollment with high school GPA and test scores, among others.

“The centralization of the system helped smooth out the quick change,” the brief says.

In Texas, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) granted a waiver for students without access to placement testing so that institutions may use other indicators such as high school GPA to determine the best placement options for entering students. The collected data will allow THECB to assess the relationship between the use of particular multiple measures assessment systems and student outcomes, CAPR says.

Meanwhile, to integrate their efforts with current reforms already underway, Washington state used its guided pathways cohort infrastructure to support planning for multiple measures assessment implementation.

“This integration of reform strategies can help stave off initiative fatigue, which is particularly important in a resource-constrained environment,” the brief says.

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