Evaluation of Alternative Placement Systems and Student Outcomes

College students taking a standardized test

Research suggests that the standardized tests used by most institutions to place students into developmental education or college-level courses do not always accurately determine which students will benefit from developmental education or college coursework. CAPR’s assessment study was developed to help colleges improve upon current assessment practices to make sure students are placed into the appropriate level of courses by addressing two questions:

  1. How do alternative assessment and placement strategies affect students’ overall academic performance, persistence, and progress toward college degrees?
  2. What does it take to implement alternative assessment and placement strategies? What does it cost?

The five-year study is being conducted in collaboration with seven community colleges in the State University of New York (SUNY) system that are interested in modifying their assessment procedures.

The Study Design

This random assignment study evaluates a “data analytics” placement method where colleges use multiple measures to predict students’ performance in college-level math and English courses. In addition to placement test scores, predictive measures may include high school GPA, time out of high school, and other relevant data points. Data on these measures are used in a predictive model, developed in collaboration with the colleges. A cut score is then used to assign students to college-level math and English courses or developmental courses in math, reading, and writing.

A total of 13,000 students entering college in the fall of 2016 through the fall of 2017 were randomly assigned to be placed via either multiple measures or existing placement practices. A random assignment design is ideal for this study because it enables researchers to attribute any differences in later outcomes to the way in which students were placed. Students’ performance in college will be tracked for up to five semesters following placement. The outcomes of primary interest are completion of the first college-level courses in math or English and total college-level credits earned.

What We’ve Learned So Far

A CAPR working paper released in February 2017 discusses the history of college placement testing, the limitations of placement tests, the consequences of placement errors, and the movement toward multiple measures placement. It also describes several approaches to multiple measures assessment and placement.

In September 2018, CAPR researchers published a report with promising early findings. Notably, students placed using multiple measures were more likely to be assigned to and complete college-level courses in their first term. Though using multiple measures impacted both math and English placement, researchers found that the effects were especially large for the latter. All seven colleges in the study successfully implemented the alternative placement system, even though doing so was more difficult than expected.

The final report, to be released in 2020, will include data on students’ completion of introductory college-level courses, persistence, and accumulation of college credits over the longer term.