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A Better Way to Place Students

What Colleges Need to Know About Multiple Measures Assessments

02/2021
| Dan Cullinan, Erika Lewy

How should colleges determine whether students are placed into developmental or college-level courses?

Each year, colleges place millions of students into developmental math and English courses upon enrollment. To do so, colleges most often use a high-stakes placement test, which numerous research studies have shown to be highly inaccurate in determining how well students are prepared for college. As a result, these tests “underplace” many students into developmental education classes who would have been successful immediately if they had taken college credit-bearing courses instead.

Developmental education courses are designed to give students the skills they need for success in college-level courses, but they also delay students’ enrollment in credit-bearing coursework, lengthen the time it takes them to earn a degree, and may decrease the chances they will ever graduate. Colleges could boost incoming students’ college-level course pass rates by improving the assessment tools they use to place those students, with the goal of minimizing underplacement and increasing the number of students taking college-level courses. Using more than one measure to assess students’ skills—a strategy known as a multiple measures assessment (MMA)—can be an excellent way to achieve this goal.

This brief summarizes the findings from a study of the impacts of two MMA models at seven 2-year state colleges in New York and at four 2-year state colleges in Minnesota as an alternative to the high-stakes testing that colleges typically use to make placement decisions.

The study found that students who are placed into college-level courses using MMA are more likely to complete gatekeeper courses—basic introductory or prerequisite college-level courses—than their counterparts who are placed into developmental courses using placement tests. These findings held for placements in math and English courses in the first semester and after three semesters. The study also found that student success rates can improve when MMA is applied and students who would have otherwise been placed into developmental education courses are instead referred to college-level courses.