The Promise (and Perils) of Student Placement Reform: A toolkit for the use of multiple measures

Postsecondary & Workforce

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This guest blog post comes from Mark Duffy, senior research associate, and Kate Shaw, executive director, of Research for Action.

There’s nothing like getting off on the right foot. This is especially true for beginning college students — particularly those from traditionally-disadvantaged populations.

Unfortunately, research has shown that between a quarter and a third of students are misplaced when entering college, often because a single, standardized test yields an incomplete picture of a student’s readiness for credit-bearing coursework. The result can be a permanent drag on a student’s prospects for postsecondary success, as 40 percent of community college students who enroll in developmental education fail to progress in their studies, let alone earn a degree or credential.

To overcome this challenge, states and postsecondary systems are beginning to use multiple measures to improve student placement decisions and boost completion rates. Along with traditional placement tests, examples of these measures include overall high school GPA, high school standardized test results, SAT and ACT scores, individual course grades and completion and writing samples, along with non-cognitive forms of assessment; together, the measures provide more evidence for how a student should begin their postsecondary experience. 

These reforms are becoming more popular. In fact, more than half of states have a multiple measures policy in place at community colleges, four-year institutions, or both. To provide the field with resources to explore how multiple measures can be used to improve outcomes for traditionally underserved students, Research for Action developed an online, interactive Multiple Measures Toolkit designed for policymakers and practitioners considering this type of reform.

Most multiple measures policies have been developed within the last decade, and vary considerably by types of measures and how they are used. This variation makes it challenging to assess the impact of these policies on students, but some research has begun to emerge. In particular, research conducted by the Community College Research Center and others clearly shows that traditional placement tests are not strong predictors of college readiness and that high school GPA in particular is a more accurate predictor.

The use of more information to accurately place students also requires more institutional capacity. Moving from simple cut-score calculations toward more in-depth examination of a range of indicators requires deeper expertise, more staffing and better technology. And the tighter connections needed between placement, academics and support services to ensure student success can be a heavy lift for often cash-strapped institutions. For example, as institutions use multiple measures to place more students in college-level courses, they must often provide increased academic supports — such as co-requisites support labs — to support those who might otherwise be relegated to developmental courses. Colleges and universities using high school GPA must develop strong relationships with feeder high schools, understand variations in their GPA calculations and determine whether GPA cutoffs should vary for different types of students, such as adults. And better advising and communication is needed to ensure that students clearly understand these more complex policies. While the specific demands placed on institutions vary by state context and the particulars of multiple measures policy, placement reform is not an easy or straightforward fix. To make sure students get off on the right foot, states, systems and institutions must work together to create a coordinated, comprehensive approach.

A Multiple Measures Toolkit
Based on two years of research across all 50 states and eight institutions, RFA’s Multiple Measures Toolkit provides an array of easy-to-use information, including:

• State-specific summaries of existing multiple measures policies.
• A typology that details important variations in multiple measures policy.
• Case studies of policy implementation in eight institutions.
• Evidence of the impact of multiple measures on student outcomes.
• Lessons learned.
• Questions to consider if a state, system or institution is contemplating multiple measures policy reform or implementation.
• Additional resources to explore.

Users can navigate the site to quickly find and sort the information most relevant to them. 

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