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Highline College: Placement as an Opportunity to Communicate with Students

This case study provides an example of the type of innovation that can take place on an individual campus in a state that provides considerable institutional autonomy in the development of a multiple measures placement policy. In this instance, Highline College in Washington has created multiple placement assessment pathways for students based on their academic history and background, including the use of high school transcript data, an adaptive, campus-designed math test, and an online directed self-placement pilot that allows students to assess their own college readiness in English. They also invested significant resources in placement advising and student communication. While campus policy was actively evolving at the time of the site visit, this case study provides a description of the placement process, early student outcomes data, and lessons that can be applied to similar institutions and systems.

Methodology and Data Sources

Research for Action conducted campus site visits in the spring of 2016. Sites were selected based on state or system recommendations on leading institutions in multiple measures reform. Field work included interviews with eight administrators, four faculty members and one focus group with students recently placed into coursework. Institutional documents and online resources were reviewed prior to field work. In addition, the institution provided internal analyses conducted on the impact of the multiple measures policy on student outcomes. Once drafted, this case study was provided to the primary institutional contact for review and verification.

Washington’s Approach to College Placement: Multiple Measures Encouraged, Smarter Balanced Accepted

According to a 2013 statute (Title 28B, Chapter 28B.50, Section 090), Washington’s state community and technical college system is charged with “encouraging colleges to use multiple measures to determine whether a student must enroll in a pre-collegiate course including, but not limited to, placement tests, the SAT, high school transcripts, college transcripts, or initial class performance.” Beginning in 2014, institutional presidents have also agreed to accept Smarter Balanced as an assessment for placement; the system has set standard cut scores. Many community colleges are now actively using a wide variety of these and other measures to determine college placement, but the placement process at Highline College stands out as one of the most developed in the state.

Institutional Context

Background: A Large and Diverse Community College with a Long History

Highline was founded in 1961 after a local high school’s citizens committee identified the need for a “junior college” in the area. As such, Highline was the first community college in King County, and today it has grown to be one of the state’s largest postsecondary institutions. The college offers certificates, associate degrees, and applied bachelor’s degrees in over 100 courses of study. As shown in Table 1, Highline’s student body is very diverse and serves over 750 international students. Thirty five percent of students are in non-credit-bearing English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, and the college also serves a significant population of students in Adult Basic Education (ABE).1

Table 1. Student Characteristics at Highline College2

Impetus for Change: Focusing Resources on Placement and Data-Driven Decision Making

Highline’s student diversity and focus on equity drove a reexamination of its developmental education and placement policies, initially supported by Achieving the Dream (ATD). Through ATD, the college first focused reform efforts on developmental education coursework. Then, beginning in 2012, administrators concentrated more institutional resources on accurate and fair course placement, empowering a new Director of Academic Assessment and Placement to undertake significant placement reforms. The Placement and Testing Center (PTC) was moved from Student Services to Academic Affairs, and financial resources were reallocated to allow for an increase in the number of staff and the development and expansion of their role in placement advising.

Under the new director’s leadership, and in collaboration with an ACT/Compass representative, analyses were conducted that demonstrated a weak correlation between Compass Writing scores and student success in English coursework at Highline. The results corroborated the faculty’s preexisting concern that placement based on Compass Writing was often inaccurate and disproportionately disadvantaged students of color. The analysis found a somewhat better correlation between Compass Reading and student success and paved the way for Highline to drop Compass Writing as a placement measure altogether. Future changes were influenced by emerging national research on the use of high school transcripts in predicting college readiness and the recommendations of an interdepartmental campus Placement Advisory Board, which sought to improve early communication with students.

Placement Process: Creating Placement Pathways for Diverse Student Experiences

Placement metrics at Highline College consist of a menu of differentiated pathways for student placement. Based on their educational background, students are guided towards the most suitable placement pathway. For example, students without a high school diploma can be placed based on GED transcripts, while English Language Learners can submit TOEFL or IELTS scores.3

For a traditional student who graduated high school in the last three years, the placement process for both math and English begins with a review of high school transcripts, if provided; unofficial transcripts are accepted. Smarter Balanced (SBAC) and Advanced Placement (AP) test scores can also be submitted for placement; SBAC cut scores are determined by the state and an AP score of 3 or above will place a student in college-level English coursework. Figure 1 outlines this process.

Figure 1. Highline College 2015-16 Placement Measures: Multiple Pathways4

Students who do not qualify for college-level courses based on their high school transcript, GED, SBAC or AP scores were placed based on the Accuplacer Reading test for English and the campus-developed MyMathTest. The Placement and Testing Center provided in person and online access to test prep materials and brush-up courses and students could retake placement tests for free as needed. Required cut scores for the MyMathTest varied based on the class or degree track of the student.

Directed Self-Placement (DSP) Pilot: Informing and Empowering Student Course Selection

Highline’s placement process continues to evolve. Beginning in 2015-16, the college piloted a directed self-placement platform for English placement with 110 students; placement based on the DSP expanded in 2016-17. The self-placement process walks students through the course content and expectations for English 101 in a series of interactive steps:

  1. Students complete a questionnaire on their reading and writing comfort and experience
  2. Students are provided sample texts from English 101 and asked to write a short reflection on their comprehension
  3. Students are provided an English 101 assignment and read a sample student’s essay
  4. Students write another reflection on their comfort with the essay assignment
  5. Students watch a video about their options for introductory English
  6. Students choose between three classes: English 101, English 101+, which provides extra time in the classroom to support completion, or English 91 (developmental education)
  7. Students meet with an assessment advisor to review their choice and provide additional input.

Starting with the 2016-17 school year, the DSP became computer-based and replaced traditional placement testing in some situations.

Communication: Finding Every Opportunity to Talk to Students about Placement

Highline’s placement policy is communicated to students on the college’s website and in person both at the Admissions Office and at the Placement and Testing Center (PTC). New students receive a “next steps” guide as soon as they express an intent to enroll that directs them to visit the PTC. The front desk staff at the Admissions Office, where prospective students often walk in, are also trained on placement policy, inform students that they have multiple options, and refer them to PTC for more information. Students are expected to visit the PTC before attending mandatory new student orientation and registering for classes.

The intake process at the PTC is designed to identify which placement measure is best for each student. All students meet with an assessment advisor to review their placement and navigate next enrollment steps. Students who took MyMathTest or Accuplacer are advised about what their scores mean and about what opportunities for brush-up and re-testing are available to them. For math placement especially, students are strongly encouraged to treat the first test as a practice, and then use the online study plan and/or brush-up workshops to review and refresh their skills and take the test again. This high touch process is part of Highline’s commitment to “placement as an opportunity for communication with students.”

Implementation and Impact: Promising Results and Remaining Challenges

Highline’s placement reforms have resulted in some notable changes. Institutional data reveal the following:

  • High school transcript review was expanded as a result of centralizing the process in the Placement and Testing Center. Highline College began accepting transcripts for English placement for the first time in March 2014. Previously, the process of reviewing high school transcripts for math placement took place informally with individual math department faculty members, and was not well advertised. Formally moving this proves into the PTC allowed for more widespread use of transcript review for math placement. The review of unofficial transcripts was also incorporated; students can simply pull up their transcript on paper, online, or even on their cell phone, and staff at the PTC can then review this information on the spot to determine whether the student has a GPA that qualifies them for college-level course placement.
  • The introduction of high school transcripts for placement has allowed more students to place into college-level math courses. Internal data from the 2015-2016 academic year provided evidence that 73 percent of students who took MyMathTest (n=1811) placed into developmental math courses, compared to 51 percent of students who were placed based on a review of their high school transcripts (n=1034). Further, the percentage of students placed into developmental math courses has decreased each year since 2014, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Total percentage of fall cohort students placed into developmental math courses: 2014-2016

Nonetheless, Highline College continues to work to improve math placement accuracy. As one administrator put it, “Math as a gateway to college success is still a stumbling block.” The department continues to refine its MyMathTest and consider ways to ensure it does not exclude college-ready students.

  • After Highline dropped the use of Compass Writing as a placement test for college-level English, more students, and particularly more students of color, were placed into English 101. Figure 3 displays these results.


Figure 3. Comparison of placement into English 101 by race/ethnicity

  • Students placed using high school transcripts in 2014 completed college-level English and math courses with comparable grades and success rates to those placed using Compass Reading or MyMathTest. As shown in Figure 4, this internal data helped assess and ultimately validate placement reforms and build staff buy-in by providing Highline College’s administrators and faculty with evidence that the reform was not negatively impacting student outcomes.

  • A preliminary internal analysis of data from the directed self-placement pilot revealed that students were succeeding in college-level English courses at an even higher rate than those placed using Compass Reading or high school transcripts. Only two in roughly 100 students had below a 2.0 overall GPA after their first semester. This analysis provided early evidence of success and support for the scale-up of directed self-placement.
  • Faculty buy-in for placement based on multiple measures continues to be high. Faculty and administrators universally viewed Compass as an imprecise measure of college readiness. Math faculty much preferred MyMathTest to Compass as it provides formative tools and allows for much more customization. English faculty strongly supported (and had advocated for) the move to drop Compass Writing, expressed satisfaction with the use of high school transcripts and the piloting of directed self-placement, and anecdotally felt that these new measures had increased equity in placement.
  • With increasing numbers of students placing in college-level courses, many need additional supports. Placement changes have necessitated more sections of English 101+, a co-requisite version of 101 with additional student supports. Data demonstrate that students taking these courses are succeeding at high rates.
  • English faculty and administrators reported an increased concentration of high-need students in developmental courses as more skilled students began to place into college-level English. This shift required a renewed focus on strategies for supporting high-need students.
  • Faculty and staff reported that students had a better understanding of the placement process than in previous years, but more needs to be done. There was consensus that student understanding had improved dramatically with the new Director of Academic Assessment and Placement, the introduction of new resources and materials, and the advent of a more communications-focused approach to placement advising. However, many felt there was more work to be done. Several administrators expressed a belief that, with the move to directed self-placement for English, understanding and communication would improve.

Lessons for the Field: Leadership, Capacity, and a Commitment to Communication

Highline’s experiences as an innovator in the use of high school transcripts, directed self-placement, and intensive placement advising yields lessons that may be applied in other states and institutions:

  • The transformation of a placement process requires both interdepartmental collaboration and strong leadership. At Highline, administrators empowered the Director of Academic Assessment and Placement to make changes based on research and faculty and student experiences. The college’s “Placement Advisory Board,” with representatives from all relevant departments, provides a space for dialogue, builds buy-in and helps to keep everyone informed of policy changes.
  • Greater capacity at the Placement and Testing Center improved institutional communication with students. Investing in a robust staff enabled Highline’s Testing Center to better support students as an early point of contact. Along with the director, the PTC has a staff of two full-time assessment and placement advisors, one full-time program manager, and four part-time staff responsible for student intake and overall operations. With this level of staffing, the PTC is able to both administer assessments and engage in meaningful placement advising for every student who comes through their doors.
  • Creating explicit pathways to placement that represent the diverse educational experiences of students enrolling in community college reflects a focus on equity. Highline’s placement process acknowledges that a one-size-fits-all assessment approach will not serve students well. Its placement resources utilize concise visuals to clearly communicate placement pathways and options to students.
  • Assessing internal data regularly encourages dialogue about what’s working and what needs further refinement. Highline’s Director of Academic Assessment and Placement frequently shares analysis of student outcomes with faculty and administrators during department meetings, cabinet meetings, and in front of the Placement Advisory Board. Administrators and faculty have responded to the analysis by adjusting placement policies, demonstrating an openness to data-driven decision-making that has improved placement outcomes for the students they serve.
  • Variation in the quality of public high schools was not a barrier to the review of transcripts in the placement process, and the use of “unofficial transcripts” expedited the process. High school transcript review rubrics were developed by Highline College in consultation with feeder high schools. Faculty and administrators from the college reached out to local high schools and spoke with English and math teachers to better understand the meaning of different grades in different courses (i.e., does a C in this course mean that a student has done college-level work) and then developed district-specific rubrics by course level that outline what grades indicate college readiness.


  1. Highline College
  2. The TOEFL test measures a student’s ability to use English at the college level. The International English Language Testing System (IELTS) measures the language proficiency of people who want to study or work where English is used as a language of communication.
  3. As of the 2016-17 academic year, the Compass test is no longer used at Highline College, and has been replaced with the Accuplacer Reading test for dual enrollment students and Directed Self-Placement (DSP) for students without prior college. An additional placement pathway has also been developed for international students or English Language Learners and includes the Accuplacer Reading test. TOEFL scores are used (if already available) to determine if a student will be placed based on DSP or Accuplacer Reading scores; the TOEFL test measures a student’s ability to use English at the college level.
  4. CASAS is an assessment that measures basic, English language and literacy skills.