From Speed Bump to On-Ramp: Holistic Assessment and the Reinvention of Placement

The last decade has seen a remarkable and much-needed wave of innovations in developmental education, and the mechanisms for placement are no exception. As recently as 2011, a survey of community colleges (Fields & Parsad, 2012) found that nearly all used a placement test, with the vast majority relying solely on that measure to make placement decisions.

But with growing concern about the validity of placement test results (Burdman, 2012), many institutions looked for alternative placement models. Work from the Community College Research Center (2012) showed the capacity for multiple measures to improve placement accuracy, and by 2016, more than half the states had some form of multiple measures policy in place (RFA Multiple Measures, n.d.).

The use of multiple measures, as well as other innovations in the developmental education space, are a welcome change to a system that simply was not an effective means of remediating students (Burdman, 2012). Yet there is still important work to be done, especially around the issue of placement. This process is, in many ways, the first conversation that a college has with a student. Thus, it is critical that this conversation be well-informed, supportive in nature, and guided toward a student’s best path to success.

There are three key points that, in my opinion, shape the next wave of innovation in placement.

1. Distinguishing between multiple measures and holistic assessment. Shifting from a single placement test to multiple measures can happen in many ways, including the consideration of high school grades or providing additional assessments for students who score close to college level. Multiple measures, as operationalized in this way, are a definite improvement over a single-test system. In fact, doing so aligns with recommendations from organizations such as ACT and the College Board.

However, models such as these still prioritize the academic components of college readiness. Several years ago, Terry O’Banion and I (2014) wrote a piece on noncognitive factors, the research supporting their relevance in student success, and the need to more appropriately address and support these areas in placement, advising, and other student success efforts. While multiple measures help to address concerns about placement tests, they fail to provide key information about the behavioral, motivational, emotional, and social components of student success.

2. It’s not about placement; it’s about support. A more holistic model of assessment and placement is crucial because determining which course a student should take is only one part of the on-ramp to student success.

In the aforementioned study by the Community College Research Center (2012), the holistic placement model was able to identify some students who were placed into a college-level course based on a test score alone, but were likely to fail that course based on other indicators. The author referred to these students as “over-placed,” yet I would argue that these students were under-supported. It would seem that the challenge these students faced was not the level of content, but rather the strategies used to pass the course.

Placement should be considered as a moment of determining support in both the academic and cocurricular domains. Based on proficiency in math or English, a student may require academic support (e.g., tutoring or a corequisite course), but holistic assessment might also identify the need for advising, counseling, or other interventions that could support success beyond those gateway courses.

Multiple measures placement is an advantage for students whose success may be misrepresented by a placement test, allowing them to forgo a semester (or more, in some cases) of developmental education. Yet as a placement system more capably identifies students who are likely to succeed, it better predicts those who will likely fail. Thus, it is not just placement, but support, that is critical in these early conversations with students.

3. The next step is innovative pedagogy. Placement is just one of many innovations in developmental education. The corequisite movement, first through institutional experimentation and increasingly through state policy, has gained widespread adoption (Complete College America, n.d.). Innovative instructional delivery, such as emporium models, has changed the pace of remediation at many institutions. Certainly, developmental education, as it stands today, is a far different system than the one that stood ten years ago.

The reason these innovations are so important is that they change the intervention that is designed to remediate students’ academic needs. We’ve long known that students who are placed into developmental education have little chance of completing those courses and, ultimately, completing a degree (Bailey & Cho, 2010). While we have maligned placement tests, secondary curricula, and a host of other factors, one of the key issues was that our primary existing intervention—that is, providing additional semesters of coursework—was not demonstrably effective in achieving that goal of remediation (Burdman, 2012).

Community colleges have long been a gateway to higher education and a lever of economic change for our citizens and our nation. Innovation in developmental education is key because it is the means by which we give any student, regardless of the challenges faced, the best chance to be successful. Holistic assessment, placement, and support—coupled with effective pedagogy—is simply the next logical step in achieving that goal.

Visit for the reference list.

Ross Markle

Independent assessment and data use consultant


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