Toward Better College Course Placement

A Guide to Launching a Multiple Measures Assessment System

By Dan Cullinan, Elisabeth A. Barnett, Alyssa Ratledge, Rashida Welbeck, Clive Belfield, Andrea Lopez

Most students seeking to enroll in community college are required to take a placement test for math and English courses. Among those students, 60 percent are directed into at least one developmental (remedial) education course. Community colleges have often relied solely on a traditional placement test, such as College Board’s ACCUPLACER, but recent evidence suggests that this approach misplaces substantial numbers of students. While some students are misdirected into college-level courses they are not ready for, research indicates that up to one-third of those placed into developmental education could be successful in college-level courses. These underplaced students are investing time and money on courses that do not contribute to their degree plans, which may discourage them from continuing their education.

Administrators are well aware of the shortcomings of using traditional placement tests alone, and state and college systems across the country are organizing multiple measures assessment (MMA) placement systems that will potentially provide more accurate results. MMA systems use alternative measures alongside the traditional tests to create a final placement. Among available measures, there is strong empirical evidence that high school grade point average (GPA) is one of the best predictors of college success. While the evidence is less strong for noncognitive assessments — measures of characteristics such as motivation and problem-solving skills — some research shows that they too can be predictive of success in college courses.

During fall 2016, MDRC, in partnership with the Community College Research Center (CCRC), launched the Multiple Measures Assessment Project, funded by Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation, and assisted ten Minnesota and Wisconsin colleges with the design and piloting of MMA placement systems. In the pilot in summer 2017, students who were identified as needing developmental education based on test scores could be “bumped up” to a college-level course based on measures such as high school performance (primarily GPA) or a noncognitive assessment.

This guide is a result of that project. While recent evidence shows that implementing an MMA system is a promising strategy to mitigate the issue of underplacement, practitioners may be hesitant to change their current practices, skeptical about the measures used, or unsure where to start. The information in this guide addresses these concerns, explores examples and lessons learned from the first phase of the project, and provides recommendations for how to approach each step of the process. Beginning with the rationale behind changing assessment practices, the guidance outlines what an MMA system is, what it takes to get started, the personnel involved, and the costs that may be incurred in the design and planning processes. States and college administrators alike will find tools for understanding the scope of departments involved and requirements of setting up a new system that addresses the placement needs of their students and that aims to provide students with a better chance to succeed.

Document Details

Publication Type
July 2018
Cullinan, Dan, Elisabeth Barnett, Alyssa Ratledge, Rashida Welbeck, Clive Belfield, and Andrea Lopez. 2018. Toward Better College Course Placement. New York: MDRC.