Bringing Equity Into College Placement Reforms

By Nicholas Tucker Reyes and Julia Raufman

Three students listening to instructor in class.

Community colleges across the country have embraced placement reforms in the face of evidence that traditional standardized testing is poorly predictive. Among the most popular alternatives to test-based placement systems is multiple measures assessment (MMA), which assesses students’ readiness for college-level math and English through a wider array of measures, including high school GPA. Although MMA has been shown to be more predictive than standardized tests and to improve college-level course completion for students overall, alternative placement systems are not generally designed to address disparities in educational attainment by race/ethnicity, income, age, or linguistic background. Moreover, many student populations, including English learner students and returning students whose high school transcripts may be too old to be considered valid by the institution, may be unable to participate in redesigned placement procedures and forced instead to rely on a test for placement.

Disparities by race in placement and college-level course completion persist in part because broad-based MMA systems are implemented as race-neutral policies. A study on the impact of MMA on student outcomes conducted in the State University of New York system revealed that while all students placed under a multiple measures system were significantly more likely to place into a college-level English or math course instead of a developmental course, White students still placed into college-level courses at a higher rate than their Black and Latinx peers. Advising practices, racial disparities in high school GPAs, unequal access to alternative placement criteria, and other factors can impact placement and play a role in mitigating or exacerbating these gaps.

In response to the limited potential of broad-based reforms to address the needs and experiences of historically minoritized, low-income, English learner, and first-generation students, institutions have started thinking about ways to augment their placement systems with equity in mind. The impact of the COVID pandemic led colleges around the country to experiment with alternative placement strategies, including informed self-placement, that reduce the number of students assigned to prerequisite developmental education and increase access to college-level courses. Alternative strategies to place students into English as a Second Language (ESL) courses have also been emerging at many colleges in response to the challenges of using traditional assessments for ESL course placement and findings that traditional ESL assessments negatively influence English learner students’ self-perceptions and academic achievement in community colleges. For example, at some colleges in California, faculty or advisors use a placement questionnaire to guide students through the process of choosing the ESL course that best supports their skills.

In a new brief from CAPR, researchers outline strategies to help institutions drive more equitable outcomes in the placement of students into college-level coursework:

  • Institutions can adopt an asset-based orientation to student performance. In seeking to identify and remediate academic weaknesses among students, traditional developmental education tends to restrict or at least delay access to college-level coursework, often for multiple semesters. An asset-based orientation to student performance, in contrast, focuses on what students can do and on identifying and leveraging students’ strengths to promote their success. The implementation of corequisite remediation is an example of leveraging students’ strengths to promote their success. Corequisite remediation allows students who may have traditionally been placed into prerequisite developmental education to enroll instead in a credit-bearing gateway course along with a developmental support course or other supplemental instruction. Importantly, corequisite support for students needs to be accompanied by equity-focused professional learning on the part of faculty and staff to better leverage students’ strengths.
  • Institutions can design placement systems to be mindful of specific student populations. High school GPA and other high-school-based criteria have been shown to be more predictive of college readiness than standardized test scores. However, immigrant, international, and older students may be excluded from reformed placement systems if they lack the applicable measures. Institutions have developed creative solutions for at least some of these students through the use of student-reported data in place of official high school transcript data. For the equitable placement of English learners, institutions should ensure that placement systems distinguish between proficiency in academic English and other knowledge and skills that students may possess. This may include looking in depth at a student’s background to better understand what academic content they have learned in other languages. Research into effective design and practice for this differentiation is ongoing. To meet the needs of a diverse range of students, colleges will have to continue to experiment with different strategies to incorporate nontraditional measures into placement systems.
  • Institution-wide training on equity-focused practices can be offered to faculty, advisors, and staff. Advisors, testing staff, and faculty can greatly influence the courses into which students place and how they are taught, especially under reformed placement systems that allow new students to choose what courses they would like to take based on their own self-appraisal, other assessment information, and guidance from college personnel. It is critical that college personnel receive ongoing training that encourages self-reflection on their own implicit biases, knowledge, practices, and assumptions. This training should also impart an institution-wide awareness of language demands that the institution places on English learners and assumptions or biases about them. An example from Cuyamaca College shows how professional learning opportunities can provide college staff with equity-minded approaches to placement and pedagogical practices. The college offers an Equity-Minded Teaching and Learning Institute as a yearly cohort-based professional development activity in which faculty analyze their classroom data, disaggregated by race and ethnicity, and then make changes to their curriculum and teaching practices using an equity-minded teaching framework. Resources available more broadly include professional development opportunities offered by the Office of Community College Research and Leadership (OCCRL), such as its Advancing Racial Justice and Equitable Outcomes in Community Colleges Institutes, which are open to community college faculty, student-affairs professionals, and academic-affairs administrators nationwide. Training opportunities such as these provide a clear understanding of educational equity and culturally responsive practices.

While the strategies that the new CAPR brief describes are important, it is also clear that more research is needed to understand the potential for placement reforms and related developmental education reforms to reduce equity gaps. The field needs to know more about what innovations lead to the most equitable outcomes for underserved students. Rigorous research on emerging alternative placement systems and other reforms that disaggregates outcomes by subgroups can provide further clarity on how historically marginalized students may benefit from changes that are aimed explicitly at greater equity.

Moreover, there are innovative approaches to placement for historically marginalized students that merit further attention and research. Examples of innovative approaches can be found at colleges such as Berkeley City College and Cuyamaca College, where advising has been integrated with the course placement experience into English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) courses, and ESOL faculty guide students to the courses that will best support their skills. Research has shown that the role of advising in course placement can be particularly important for historically marginalized students, and further research can lead to a better understanding of how asset-based principles and race-conscious practices can be embedded throughout this process.

Nicholas Tucker Reyes is a research assistant at the Community College Research Center.
Julia Raufman is a research associate at the Community College Research Center.