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In recent years, the inequitable placement of students in developmental education combined with low success rates has led institutions to reform their assessment and placement practices: a growing number of states and postsecondary systems are moving away from single standardized test scores in favor of more accurate “multiple measures” policies. As institutions have begun to couple assessment tests (historically used as a free-standing, high-stakes placement tool) with other measures — including high school coursework completion (e.g., mathematics), high school GPA and noncognitive factors — many have seen significantly more students placing into and successfully completing gateway math and English. Additionally, the use of multiple measures is showing significant promise with respect to achieving more equitable access to gateway mathematics for African American and Latinx students. As with any reform, quality design and implementation as well as the ongoing use of finely disaggregated data is required for ensuring that a multiple measures approach to placement dismantles rather than replicates existing inequities.
Standardized tests have low predictive validity and should not be used to assess students’ academic preparation unless included in a suite of multiple measures. High school GPA and high school coursework completion are the strongest predictors of success and should be the primary measures used to assess students’ need for additional corequisite or embedded supports.
Despite encouraging evidence and the growing use of multiple measures, difficulties in obtaining high school transcript data as well as ongoing uncertainty about the right combination of measures to be used remain. Although there is much more to know about the fairest approaches to placement, the latest research indicates that students’ self-reporting of high school course grades and GPAs can be reliably used in place of official high school transcripts. Beyond the use of GPAs and individual course grades, institutions are also beginning to experiment with promising placement strategies like guided self-placements to more effectively understand students’ needs.
Because there is limited evidence about the most effective measures besides high school GPA and coursework completion, ongoing experimentation and evaluation of different placement approaches is needed. Unknowns aside, the research is clear that the use of single high-stakes tests to place students in developmental education is harmful and inequitable. Institutions committed to achieving better and more equitable outcomes for students use placement practices that more accurately determine students’ needs for support and help avoid their placement in prerequisite courses that significantly lower their chances of completing the gateway course.