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Davidson County Community College: Placement based on High School GPA

This case study profiles the experience of one of the first institutions in the North Carolina Community College System to implement the centrally-developed multiple measures placement policy. Early student outcomes are presented based on institutional data. In addition, the profile presents lessons learned from the site and describes what adjustments have been made to address early implementation challenges and concerns based on initial student outcomes data.

Methodology and Data Sources

Research for Action conducted a site visit at Davidson County Community College in the spring of 2014 as part of an earlier study on multiple measures reform and then conducted follow-up interviews in the spring of 2016.  Our initial field work included interviews with four college administrators and four faculty members (two in math and two in English), as well as two student focus groups; the follow-up interviews included four administrators. Sites were selected based on state or system recommendations on leading institutions in multiple measures reform. Institutional documents and online resources were reviewed as well. In addition, the institution provided internal analyses conducted on the impact of the multiple measures policies on student outcomes. Once drafted, this case study was provided to the primary institutional contact for review and verification.

State or System Policy: A Centrally Developed Hierarchy of Measures

The North Carolina Community College System (NCCCS) developed a uniform placement process in English and math to be used across the system of institutions. The process is required across all community colleges as of the fall of 2016.1 As outlined in Figure 1, the policy establishes a hierarchy of measures. Students are exempt from developmental education courses if they graduated from high school within five years of applying to college, and satisfy at least one of the following requirements:

  1. A high school GPA of at least 2.6 and demonstrated completion of four high school math courses; Algebra II must be a pre-requisite for at least one of the courses.
  2. ACT/SAT scores that meet the specific score thresholds.
  3. Traditional placement test scores that meet specific score thresholds.

Figure 1. NCCCS Multiple Measures Placement Policy

Institutional Context

Background: Serving a Rural Community

Davidson County Community College (DCCC) was founded in 1963 and is located in central North Carolina; it serves residents in Davidson and Davie Counties. Due to the declining number of manufacturing jobs, both counties suffer from high levels of unemployment. The college opened the Davie campus and three satellite education centers due to increased enrollment numbers in the 2000s. Historically, the campus was established to educate and prepare those who needed to transition from an agricultural to a manufacturing-based economy. The characteristics of students at DCCC as of fall 2015 are outlined in Table 1.

Table 1. Student Characteristics at DCCC (Source: NCES College Navigator)

Impetus for Change: Foundational work prepared the institution for System-wide Reform

DCCC has been involved in a number of initiatives focused on student success, including Achieving the Dream and Completion by Design, both of which are aimed at identifying strategies to increase graduation rates.2 Davidson also participated in the North Carolina Developmental Education Initiative, and, in 2010, DCCC signed on to the Student Completion Pledge, an initiative led by six national organizations to increase access to and attainment of meaningful credentials and degrees. Further, DCCC was one of the first community colleges in the state to implement the multiple measures placement process, doing so in March 2013 for students entering that summer.

In addition, through a grant from the Gates Foundation, DCCC is one of six community colleges in the state that have developed and scaled instructional support practices for students who are placed using the multiple measures process but have a high school GPA between 2.6 and 2.99. Although the practices vary across colleges, DCCC has implemented skills support labs as co-requisites for gateway math and English courses.  These labs are required for students who fall into this target group but are available to other students as well.

Placement Process: Adding Support Labs to the System’s Policy

The multiple measures policy designed by the system office offers little room for individual institutions to customize the placement process. However, as mentioned above, DCCC is implementing support labs for students as an additional resource. The placement process adopted by the system, and modified with the student support labs, is depicted in Figure 2.

Figure 2. DCCC Placement Process

The placement process at DCCC rolls out as follows:

  • First, enrollment staff determine whether the applicant has graduated from high school within the five-year window. If not, the student takes the diagnostic placement test.
  • Next, administrators check the student’s high school transcript to see if the student meets the 2.6 GPA requirement and has taken four math classes (including one with an Algebra II pre-requisite).
  • If the student’s transcript indicates a high school GPA of 3.0 or higher and four math courses, the student is enrolled directly into college credit-bearing gateway math and English courses required for the student’s selected program of study.
  • If the student meets the GPA threshold but is on the bubble with a GPA from 2.6 to 2.99, the student is eligible to take college-level courses in English and math with a required co-requisite support lab.
  • If the student’s GPA is below 2.6, administrators then check the student’s SAT/ACT scores.
  • Students who do not qualify for college-level courses through Tier 1 (high school GPA review) or Tier 2 (SAT/ACT score review) of the hierarchy must take the diagnostic placement test in the appropriate subjects to place out of developmental education courses.

There are a few notable elements of DCCC’s placement process. First, all students may choose to enroll in a support lab if they would like additional support to successfully complete introductory English or a gateway math course; the support lab is only required for students falling into the target high school GPA range of 2.6 to 2.99. If a student in this target group does not pass the curriculum course, the support lab must be repeated at the point that the curriculum course is repeated. An administrator from DCCC explained that it is common for students completing developmental coursework and moving into gateway courses to voluntarily request that they be placed in a support lab as well.

The math and English faculty have developed modules in the form of online refresher courses that support the skills needed for the diagnostic placement test. Students who take a diagnostic placement test can access these refresher courses before initial testing as well as prior to retesting. Advisors will often encourage students to take advantage of these resources if they see that a student approached the cut score on a particular assessment.

DCCC works with area high schools to coordinate messaging about the placement process. Students first hear about the placement process while still in high school from college representatives who emphasize that if they “do well” in high school and complete the required coursework in math that they will not need to take a placement test to be eligible for college-level classes. When students apply to DCCC, they receive information from the Enrollment Center about whether they must take a placement test. Then, they meet with an advisor, which is mandatory each semester. The advisors explain course options and whether students will be required to take support labs or developmental education classes.

The NCCCS has been working in partnership with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction since the beginning of the multiple measures policy to streamline accessibility of high school GPA by automatically including it in a statewide repository of high school transcripts. This system was scheduled for release in the spring of 2014, but has only come online in 2017. Until recently, all high school transcripts were reviewed by hand at DCCC, and the process is still a work in progress. To date, there is not an automatic process to separate students in the 2.6 to 2.99 range from students with a 3.0 or above.  As a result, additional review is still required for institutions, like DCCC, that are involved in the instructional support pilot project.

Implementation and Impact: Promising Results that vary by High School GPA

Drawing from both interviews and student outcomes data provided by DCCC, the following section explores the implementation and impact of the new placement model with the addition of the support labs on the campus. Key findings are outlined below.

As a result of NCCCS’s new placement policy, the number of students that require developmental education has been reduced by approximately 50%. Since the fall of 2013, approximately one-third of incoming students each term are placed directly into college-level coursework based on the multiple measures policy. Students who are not eligible to be placed under the policy take the placement test.Figure 3 below provides data collected and analyzed by the institution on the percentage of students successfully completing gateway courses in English and math, based on how they were placed in those courses.

Figure 3. Percentage of students successfully completing gateway courses in English and math, by placement measure

Students placed via the multiple measures policy have succeeded in college-level courses at higher rates than students placed based on other measures. As can be seen in Figure 3, a larger percentage of students placed into math and English gateway courses based on a multiple measures exemption succeeded in those courses than students placed based on a test or completion of developmental education courses.

Figures 4 and 5 present DCCC’s analysis of student outcomes disaggregated by high school GPA and show the variation between students with high school GPAs at or above 3.0 and between 2.6 and 2.99.

Figure 4. Percentage of students successfully completing English gateway course by placement measure

Figure 5. Percentage of students successfully completing math gateway course by placement measure


NOTE: Students who received a grade of A, B, or C successfully completed a gateway course. Students who withdrew from the course, or received a grade of D or F, did not receive credit for successful completion.

Notable findings are as follows:

  • Student success rates differed by high school GPA. As evidenced in Figures 4 and 5, when DCCC compared the success rates of students placed in college-level courses based on a high school GPA between 2.6 and 2.99 and those with a high school GPA of 3.0 or above, they found that, depending on the course, success rates differed considerably.
  • The support labs were developed to address concerns that students placed through multiple measures may need additional supports. Faculty members interviewed during the first year of implementation reported concerns about the 2.6 GPA threshold, both because they felt it was too low a threshold for college readiness, and because it is not course specific. Indeed, the student outcomes data provides evidence that DCCC students with GPAs below 3.0 who were placed in college-level courses were not as successful in those courses as students with a GPA of 3.0 or above, and in some cases not as successful as students placed based on testing or prior credit. Those concerns have been addressed with the development of the instructional support pilot project at six community colleges, including DCCC.

Implementation Challenges and Successes

Our analysis also identified several implementation challenges and successes at DCCC:

  • Implementing the multiple measures placement process has been a collaborative process across multiple departments. Departments and offices including the Enrollment Center, Student Affairs, and the Learning Commons Testing Center have been involved in the implementation of multiple measures at DCCC. In addition, faculty members have been at the forefront of the reform by determining the necessary supports and providing them to students.
  • Advisors are key players in the placement process. All students at DCCC are required to meet with their college advisors to determine their course trajectory. Students meet with their advisors to draft a course schedule and then proceed to orientation. Students who do not qualify for multiple measures exemption must take the diagnostic placement test and meet with career counselors, who interpret placement test scores and discuss course placement and program of study.   Accordingly, administrators at DCCC say that advisors play a key role in helping students understand their placement in classes during their first year.
  • DCCC’s relatively small size aided the transcript review process. One administrator explained that “We just went through and hand-evaluated every transcript. Now that’s something obviously [other colleges] can’t do.” he fact that DCCC is smaller than some other community colleges in the state made the review process less burdensome.

Lessons for the Field: Capacity, Curriculum and Collaboration

Based on the placement process at DCCC and in the larger context of the NCCCS placement policy, the following lessons may be applied in other states and institutions:

  • Manual transcript review takes time and human capacity. Administrators emphasized that while high school GPA is a more accurate measure of college readiness than traditional placement tests, transcript review takes time. Institutions that must rely on manual transcript review will need to allocate or build the staff capacity to make it work.
  • Determining the level of academic support students need to be successful in college-level courses based on high school GPA is an iterative process. After initially using a 2.6 GPA as the threshold for college readiness, DCCC determined that students with a GPA below 3.0 were not as successful in college-level courses. As a result, the college implemented support labs for students with high school GPAs from 2.6 to 2.99. One administrator explained, “We still need to establish what the tipping point is for students being ready for college-level work.”
  • Additional supports may be needed for students in college-level courses with a high school GPA below 3.0. With the increase in students placed in college-level courses came increased need for additional supports for students with more limited academic skills. Placement reform is most effective when additional academic supports are provided to address the needs of a more diverse set of student skill levels in gateway courses.
  • Implementation of placement reform is a collaborative process. While transcript review takes place in the Enrollment Center, implementation takes place across multiple offices and departments at DCCC, and so both faculty and staff need to be included in planning and implementing placement reform.
  1. Originally, the deadline was fall 2015, but the programming for the online, automatic high school transcript data upload process designed by the system office to facilitate the multiple measures placement process was delayed.
  2. DCCC Annual Report 2012–2013