For many students, the road to a degree or certificate begins with a detour: developmental education. In fact, roughly half of community college students and one-fifth of students in four-year institutions are deemed underprepared in math, reading or writing.1 Most often, these students are required to take developmental courses, which are usually noncredit bearing and delay their enrollment in the college-level courses that will contribute to their degree. What’s more, a wealth of research has shown that, on average, students who are placed into developmental education have a much lower chance of receiving a degree.1
Recent research has shown, however, that this detour into developmental education may be avoidable or shortened. By assessing a holistic set of skills — which includes the ability to organize time, commit to goals, manage stress and connect with others — institutions can identify those students who can succeed when placed in higher-level courses, even when their placement test scores fall below requirements.
By following these three steps, institutions can gain a more complete understanding of their students to make more informed placement decisions and improve success rates:
Step 1. Measure Noncognitive Skills
One way to improve developmental education that has been repeatedly proposed is holistic assessment, or using additional measures beyond placement tests to gain a better understanding of a student’s strengths and challenges. This is driven, in part, by a body of research that shows students’ noncognitive skills and behaviors are just as important as their academic achievement in determining whether they will succeed in college.2 Accordingly, researchers such as Hunter Boylan, Pamela Burdman and David Conley3 have recommended expanding our criteria for course placement to include measures of these noncognitive skills, with the goal of identifying students with effective cocurricular strategies that can help compensate for certain deficiencies in academic achievement. When institutions broaden the criteria for enrollment in college-level courses, they increase the number of students who enroll, consequently decreasing the number of students placed into developmental education.
Step 2. Add Holistic Assessment to Placement Process
Indeed, research has shown several advantages to using multiple measures and holistic assessment in the course placement process. A study published by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University showed that a quarter to a third of students placed into developmental education can actually earn a B or better in college-level courses.4 The research recommends that multiple measures to assess a student’s overall capabilities are needed for accurate course placement. Moreover, a recent study published by ETS followed students who scored near but below the cut score for enrollment in college-level math courses. Students who scored higher on an index of multiple measures that included noncognitive components were accelerated into the college-level course and succeeded at rates similar to those students who naturally placed at the college level.5
Step 3. Provide the Right Support
Important to remember is that — even if students are optimally placed — there still will be issues that challenge their success. Advocates of holistic assessment and course acceleration have repeatedly stressed the need for proper cocurricular support. Students who are accelerated may need some assistance in overcoming the challenges they’ve demonstrated in math or English, and may require supports such as tutoring. Similarly, many students who score well on placement tests may lack organizational skills and could benefit from enrolling in a student success course to develop valuable study strategies. By using a holistic assessment plan that includes an effective measure of noncognitive skills, institutions can identify both strengths that may help accelerated students and challenges that may impede success. Only then can institutional resources be effectively directed to ensure students stay on track.
In order to follow the three steps toward improving course placement, institutions need to add the right holistic assessment to their traditional placement tools, such as placement tests and high school transcripts.
How can the SuccessNavigator® assessment help institutions improve course placement?
The SuccessNavigator assessment gives a holistic view of critical factors that influence incoming student success — academic skills, commitment, self-management and social support — to identify at-risk students, deliver detailed action plans and improve first-year retention rates. This 30-minute self-administered online assessment is simple to implement and provides both data and specific tools to:
✓ Easily identify and reach students with strong noncognitive skills who may be eligible for acceleration into higher level courses, e.g., when their placement test scores fall near but below a cut score.
✓ Identify the unexpected cocurricular challenges faced by all students, in both developmental and college-level courses.
✓ Effectively guide students to success using individualized reports accompanied by detailed action plans and resources.
By adding the SuccessNavigator assessment to their placement process, institutions have the actionable holistic data they need to help students succeed.
- Complete College America. (2012). Remediation: Higher education’s bridge to nowhere. Washington, DC: Author.
- Poropat, A. E. (2009). A meta-analysis of the five-factor model of personality and academic performance. Psychological Bulletin, 135(2), 322–338.
- Boylan, H. R. (2009). Targeted intervention for developmental education students (TIDES). Journal of Developmental Education, 32(3), 14–23.
- Scott-Clayton, J. (2012). Do high-stakes placement exams predict college success? (CCRC Working Paper No. 41). New York: Community College Research Center. Retrieved online from http://ccrc.tc.columbia.edu/Publication.asp?UID=1026.
- Rikoon, S., Liebtag, T., Olivera-Aguilar, M., Robbins, S., & Jackson, T. (2014). A pilot study of holistic assessment and course placement in community college: Findings and recommendations. (ETS Research Memorandum 14-10). Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.
Richardson, M., Abraham, C., & Bond, R. (2012). Psychological correlates of university students’ academic performance: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 138(2), 353–387.
Robbins, S., Lauver, K., Le, H., Davis, D., Langley, R., & Carlstrom, A. (2004). Do psychosocial and study skill factors predict college outcomes? A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 130(2), 261–288.
Burdman, P. (2012). Where to begin? The evolving role of placement exams for students starting college [Report]. Boston, MA: Jobs for the Future.
Conley, D. T. (2007). Toward a more comprehensive conception of college readiness. Eugene, OR: Educational Policy Improvement Center.
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