Exploring Informed Self-Placement

By Tiffany Morton

Student thinking while looking at laptop in library.

During the pandemic, access to the proctors and testing spaces required to administer the standardized tests traditionally used to assess readiness for college-level coursework largely disappeared. Because informed self-placement (ISP) can be implemented without reliance on these problematic tests, many colleges started using it for placement during the pandemic.

ISP, also referred to as directed self-placement or guided self-placement, focuses on educating students about a college’s curriculum and available courses and then asks them to reflect on their skills and experiences before deciding their own placement.

CAPR researchers engaged in a one-year exploratory study of ISP as part of an effort to identify and evaluate better placement practices. We sought to understand current ISP practices and how colleges are designing ISP systems through qualitative interviews with practitioners and other stakeholders. We also examined correlations between ISP practices and student outcomes in existing research and as part of a case study in Nevada.

CAPR published two briefs sharing findings from the study. A literature review describes how and why ISP is being used and synthesizes findings across studies. A second brief offers a framework for classifying placement strategies to define ISP more clearly; discusses ISP practices in the field; shares observations from the case study in Nevada; and lists important considerations for those interested in implementing ISP.

Recent Changes to College Placement

College placement practices have shifted significantly in recent years. Studies emerged in the early 2010s showing that standardized placement tests put many incoming college students into developmental courses they didn’t need. This was particularly true for Black and Latinx students. Such studies prompted practitioners, policymakers, and researchers to use, develop, and evaluate alternative methods to determine college readiness more accurately and to place students more appropriately. ISP was one of those alternatives.

Some colleges use ISP as their primary placement method. Others use it in conjunction with other placement methods like multiple measures assessment (MMA), which determines students’ placements based on various metrics. Evaluations of MMA conducted by CAPR show that MMA increases access to and success in entry-level college courses. However, inequitable placement outcomes found under traditional methods can persist with MMA. The combination of ISP with MMA presents a potential solution for that problem that warrants further analysis. The increased popularity of ISP, its independence from standardized placement tests, and its potential to build on recent advancements in placement, gave rise to the exploratory study.

Does ISP Show Promise?

The study uncovered a wide range of ISP practices both in the literature and in current use. We found that there is still not enough evidence to say whether ISP works better than current placement methods. More rigorous research of a clearly defined ISP model is needed to establish a causal relationship between ISP and particular student outcomes. However, our review of the available data describing entry-level course enrollment and completion outcomes under ISP shows that ISP may be impacting student performance. The Nevada case study and some previous studies of ISP found that enrollment trends were not directly correlated with the use of ISP. Still, there were some instances in which ISP was associated with increased enrollment in college-level courses, a common goal for many current placement reforms. Promisingly, the use of ISP corresponds with higher levels of entry-level course completion in the Nevada case study and in some studies that predate that study, though other studies found no association. Finally, the case study in Nevada showed little evidence of decreases in equity gaps in placement when ISP was the primary method of placement, while other research on ISP paints a more complex picture. Different studies report instances in which achievement gaps diminished, worsened, or remained the same with the use of ISP. The wide range of ISP practices may account for these different outcomes.

Colleges interested in ISP can turn to the briefs from the exploratory study for additional information. Keeping in mind that there is not enough research to support or oppose the use of ISP, colleges that are open to using it for other reasons, like student empowerment, may opt to incorporate ISP into their placement practices. Those interested in ISP because of its potential impact on student outcomes may want to wait for more rigorous investigations into the efficacy of this intervention.

Tiffany Morton is a research analyst in postsecondary education policy at MDRC.