Informed Self-Placement Today

An Exploratory Study of Student Outcomes and Placement Practices

| Jessica Brathwaite, Dan Cullinan, Elizabeth Kopko, Tiffany Morton, Julia Raufman, Dorota Rizik

Each year large numbers of college students are placed into developmental education, but these students are less likely to graduate than their peers who begin in college-level courses. There is evidence that many of those placed into developmental education courses could succeed in college-level courses. In recent years, new placement systems and curricular models have emerged that are designed to increase the number of students placed into entry-level college courses. These systems aim to more accurately identify students who may benefit from some type of developmental instruction and those who are ready for entry-level college courses. Examples of these include multiple measures assessment and the use of corequisites rather than prerequisites. Another type of placement system is informed self-placement (ISP). ISP is a system in which colleges provide information about placement policies, available courses, and other relevant topics to engage students as active participants in their own placement.

The Center for the Analysis of Postsecondary Readiness undertook an exploratory study of ISP to better understand this method of placement. ISP is of particular interest because it does not rely solely, if at all, on standardized test scores—a positive development because research shows that standardized test scores are not reliable predictors of performance in college. ISP was also of particular interest during the COVID-19 pandemic, when this study began, because many colleges experienced difficulty administering standardized tests and were seeking reliable placement methods that could be easily used in a virtual setting.

The data collected for this exploratory study suggest that ISP has the potential to improve students’ access to college-level coursework. Although more research is needed to understand the causal impacts of ISP on student outcomes, descriptive data from three Nevada System of Higher Education institutions that have implemented ISP in recent years show the following:

  • The introduction of ISP has not been associated with reductions in college-level course completions in either math or English. On average, enrollments and completions of college-level courses in both subjects are higher since ISP than before.
  • There is little indication that equity gaps in college-level course completions have become smaller since the introduction of ISP. On average, about the same proportion of students from each demographic category are completing college-level courses after ISP as before.

Study data also show that placement systems are implemented in a variety of ways represented by different permutations of student choice and guidance from faculty or staff. Choice and guidance are not necessarily implemented in tandem or at comparable levels. Moreover, institutional guidance can exist independent of student choice and vice versa. ISP models are defined as those subscribing to high levels of both practices. Stakeholder interviews revealed important considerations relating to equity, access, and communication for states and institutions interested in implementing ISP.

This report provides an opportunity for systems and institutions to evaluate their placement systems relative to the degree of choice and guidance provided and to consider changes that may boost student progression and success.