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Kent State University: Placement Policy Variation across Campuses

While Ohio established a uniform set of standards in math, reading, and writing that students can meet to be considered in “remediation-free” status across campuses, Kent State University used the flexibility in the policy to include additional measures in their placement process. This profiles describes the additional assessments that the institution has implemented in their multiple measures policy, as well as how placement processes can vary between the main and regional campuses of a single institution.

Methodology and Data Sources

Research for Action conducted campus site visits in the spring of 2016, and this profile presents a snapshot of implementation at that time. Sites were selected based on state or system recommendations on leading institutions in multiple measures reform. Field work at Kent State University (KSU) included interviews at both KSU–Kent (main campus) and KSU–Stark (regional campus), which was the focus of the site visit. Interviews were conducted with seven administrators and four faculty members, as well as two focus groups of students recently placed into coursework. Institutional documents and online resources were reviewed prior to field work. Once drafted, this case study was provided to the primary institutional contact for review and verification.

State or System Policy: Ohio’s Guidelines for Remediation-Free Status

In 2012, passage of HB 153 required that the presidents of Ohio’s public colleges and universities establish uniform statewide standards in mathematics, reading, and writing that each student enrolled in a state college or university must meet to be considered in “remediation-free” status. Along with high school course completion, remediation-free status is achieved if a student meets the predetermined thresholds on at least one college readiness measure they are eligible to enroll in a college credit bearing course. Importantly, the standards also give institutions latitude to establish additional assessments to determine if students meet the threshold for remediation-free status. For the 2015-16 academic year, institutions could use scores from English, reading and math sections of the ACT, SAT, Accuplacer and/or Compass, as well as internally determined measures such a writing challenge and high school grade point average; however, Compass has been eliminated and additional measures, including ALEKS,1were added to the state’s math placement policy for the 2016-17 academic year.2 Since considerable leeway was given to each institution, this policy plays out differently on each campus.

Institutional Context

Kent State University: A Research University with Regional Campuses

Kent State University (KSU) has a main campus at Kent (KSU-Kent) and eight regional campuses, including Kent State University at Stark (KSU-Stark) which was a focus of the site visit. The student demographics for both campuses are outlined in Table 1, which shows the variation in overall enrollment, part-time versus full-time status, and percentage of students over age 25 at both institutions.

Table 1. Student Characteristics at Kent State University (Source: NCES College Navigator – Fall 2015)

Impetus for Change: Building on State Placement Policy

An Ohio statute revised via the 2012-13 operating budget required the Board of Regents to establish uniform, statewide standards in math, reading and writing that students must meet to avoid remediation. Previously, institutions selected their own placement assessments and set standards to determine college readiness. A report by panels of faculty and state postsecondary policymakers to the Ohio College Readiness Advisory Council spelled out the academic standards required for college-level coursework in each subject.3

As outlined in Table 2, the report also established the minimum cut-score thresholds on the ACT, SAT, Accuplacer, and Compass exams to indicate college readiness.

Table 2: Ohio thresholds for remediation-free status and eligibility for college level courses as approved in December 2012

Placement Process: Variation in Placement Policy on the Main and Regional Campuses

Kent State University provides an example of varying placement policies by campus, subject, and intended major. The regional campuses operate under different policies from the main campus in English placement and course offerings below the college level, as outlined in Table 3:

Table 3. Variation in Placement Policy and Developmental Education by Kent State University Campus4

For the 2015-16 academic year, placement policy at KSU allowed students to become exempt from taking the ALEKS for placement in math if they had met the statewide college-readiness math cut score on the ACT or SAT and were not intending to major in a subject that requires Algebra; students intending to major in a subject that required Algebra needed to take the ALEKS regardless of their ACT or SAT score. In English, all students on the KSU-Kent campus were placed into college-level coursework because no developmental education courses were offered, but at KSU-Stark, ACT or SAT scores meeting the statewide college-readiness cut scores could exempt students from developmental education courses in reading and writing. However, KSU-Stark eliminated its lowest levels of developmental education courses and worked with the county to form a partnership known as the College Adult Basic & Literacy Education (CABLE) program so that students could take courses through the county at no cost. CABLE courses are still taught at the KSU-Stark campus and use some of the resources and technology of the university to help students become oriented to the college experience.

Upon applying for admission to KSU’s Kent and Stark campuses, a student’s ACT or SAT test scores are submitted as part of their application, unless the student has been out of high school for more than three years or is 21 years or older; these students are not required to submit SAT or ACT scores. At the time of our field work, students at both campuses were automatically enrolled into courses depending on the results of different measures, their intended major, and any previous college credit, and advisors were available during orientation to explain placement decisions.

The placement processes for 2015-16 at both KSU-Kent and KSU-Stark are explained, by subject, in greater detail below. A more extensive explanation of the placement process at KSU-Stark is provided in Table 6.

Math: On the KSU-Kent and KSU-Stark campuses during the 2015-16 academic year, SAT and ACT, ALEKS, and Compass test scores could be used for placement, depending on a student’s intended major. Students with scores below the threshold levels outlined by the state on the SAT and ACT, as well as students pursuing majors that require Algebra, were notified through the online portal (“FlashLine”) that they needed to take the ALEKS math placement test. They had the option of taking the test on or off-campus on their own time; most selected the second option. A student’s scores on the ALEKS and SAT/ACT, as well as whether their intended major would require Algebra, were used to place them into a college-level math course or a “stretch/plus” hybrid course that was still credit bearing. The “plus” portion of courses added an extra credit-hour to the credit bearing math course and were taught using an emporium model to provide extra time and support;5 “stretch” courses were sequenced over consecutive semesters to provide additional time and support to students as well. Students were provided a list of courses for which they are eligible, as outlined in Table 4, based on their scores and whether their intended major required Algebra.

Table 4. 2016 Placement assessment in math for students with current SAT or ACT scores

-*Tutoring is required for students with scores at these levels
-Courses beginning with “0” do not count toward graduation
-Courses with “stretch” or “plus” indicate that the course includes extra time and support for students

Students taking the ALEKS had the opportunity to work through online modules that used the ALEKS program to provide academic support in specific skill areas based on their test scores. Students could voluntarily decide to retake the ALEKS placement test after completing the modules to try and improve their score. About 10 percent of students typically retake the assessment, and of those, about two-thirds improve their placement.

The Compass Math placement test was administered to students who did not submit SAT or ACT scores. Following the placement test, ALEKS testing was used with students not identified as remediation-free based on their Compass scores or whose intended major requires Algebra.

Along with the courses outlined in Table 4, an academic advisor could also recommend that a student take developmental math courses. Students who scored very low on Compass and/or ALEKS were encouraged to take math courses through the CABLE program until their skills became college-ready. The Academic Success Center was also creating a “boot camp” at the time of the site visit where students could come to campus and work on the ALEKS modules to improve the likelihood that they would reassess with ALEKS and improve their placement.

The English placement process (Reading and Writing) at KSU-Kent and Stark varied, as seen in Table 5 and described below.

Table 5. English placement measures at KSU-Kent and KSU-Stark

Reading:

  • At KSU-Kent, all students, regardless of the ACT/SAT scores, were placed into college-level courses without any further testing, as developmental education courses in reading and writing are not offered.
  • At KSU-Stark, ACT/SAT reading scores were used to place students into college or developmental education level courses. Students without current ACT/SAT scores took the Compass Reading test; students with a current ACT/SAT score that did not meet the college readiness threshold could challenge their placement by taking the Compass Reading test as well. If a student scored between 61 and 79 on the Compass Reading test, s/he took the Stanford Diagnostic Reading placement test. Advisors reviewed both of those scores and used them to make placement decisions. Students with a score below 60 were placed into the CABLE program.

Writing:

  • At KSU-Kent, all students, regardless of ACT/SAT scores, were placed into college-level writing courses. Students had the option of completing a writing challenge essay that would allow them to test out of College Writing 1; students had six days to complete it through a virtual portal.
  • At KSU-Stark, students without current ACT/SAT scores took the Compass Reading test; students with a current ACT/SAT score that did not meet the college readiness threshold could challenge their placement by taking the Compass Reading test as well. If they earned between a 75 and 79 on the Compass Reading test, they had to complete a campus developed essay prompt; KSU-Stark English and writing faculty developed the prompt and scored the essays. Students with a Compass Reading test score of 74 or below could take the writing challenge developed for use across KSU campuses, and were directed to use this challenge unless they earned a 75-79 on Compass Reading. The online writing challenge could be used to challenge placement into developmental education courses or by students who wished to bypass College Writing I and begin their composition courses with College Writing II. Using the Compass Reading, local essay prompt results, or Online Writing Challenge results, students were placed into either a developmental or college-level course. Additionally, the Compass Writing Test was used to provide additional placement information for students with a very low score on the ACT; if the student met the cut score, only the Compass Reading Test score was used in English/Writing placement, but if not, it would confirm placement into developmental education.

Table 6. KSU–Stark Placement Process for First Time Undergraduate Students: 2015-16

Implementation and Impact: Results and Support Varied

Based on the interviews and focus groups conducted in exploring the implementation of the new placement model, the following findings emerge:

  • There were varied placement experiences by campus, subject and intended major. There were differences in placement processes between the two KSU campuses included in the field work. For instance, KSU-Kent offered the “stretch” math course to students, while KSU-Stark did not. There was also variation between the reading and writing placement processes on each campus due to the measures included and whether developmental education courses were offered; this decision was attributed mainly to the increasing caliber of newly admitted students at KSU-Kent and the college access mission at KSU-Stark.
  • The remediation-free guarantee is viewed as having a more limited impact at the regional campus. Because KSU-Stark serves a more non-traditional student population (i.e. students age 21 or over), more students come to the campus without SAT or ACT scores and take the Compass placement test. While ACT or SAT scores that meet the statewide college readiness thresholds can exempt a student from developmental education courses, fewer students have remediation-free scores at KSU-Stark than KSU-Kent and therefore need to take the ALEKS test, Compass tests, and essay prompt or writing challenge for final placement.
  • Changes to admissions policies and course offerings make measuring impact of the reforms difficult at KSU-Kent. Increased admission standards at KSU-Kent muddied the impact of the policy. While the campus has seen increases in the percentage of students placed into college-level courses in math, the new cohorts of students admitted have a greater likelihood of being placed into college-level courses regardless of the policy. The development of the “plus” and “stretch” courses in math, along with the elimination of developmental education courses in reading and writing, also make measuring the impact of the reforms difficult.
  • Faculty and students showed mixed support for the use of ACT or SAT scores as a criterion for exemption from developmental education courses. Instructors expressed frustration with the loss of nuance in placing students based on the ACT or SAT alone and believed that the institution’s use of multiple measures provided for more accurate placement decisions than the “remediation-free guarantee” as the assessment results were used to “challenge” placement decisions and ensure that students’ course schedules were appropriate. Some students placed based on their SAT or ACT scores felt that they should have been placed in college-level courses, while others wished they had the option to take developmental courses to strengthen skills that they may not have used in years.
  • Buy-in for the placement policies varied across math and English departments. In the math department there was a high level of buy-in for the placement process due, in part, to the considerable input of the math faculty in the inclusion of the ALEKS scores. Both reading and writing faculty at KSU-Kent expressed frustration at the loss of developmental education courses, in part because it decreased teaching opportunities, but also because they felt students were not adequately prepared to enter upper-level reading and writing courses.
  • Students on the KSU-Kent campus were unclear about the placement process. Many of the students at KSU-Kent did not understand why they were placed into their math courses or why the institution did not have developmental reading or writing. Some students noted that they had “failed” the placement assessment while institutional messaging stressed that the assessments were used to help a student’s “academic advisor determine which courses will provide the best opportunity for your success.”7
  • Institutional size and capacity was a key variable in the placement process. KSU-Stark is smaller than KSU-Kent, which allows for a more customized placement process. For example, the English faculty read and score essay prompts for potential CABLE writing students and students scoring between a 75 and 79 on the Compass Reading test, which would be far more difficult at KSU-Kent. At the same time, multiple stakeholders at KSU-Stark agreed that the campus is well-resourced, especially relative to the other regional campuses with regard to staffing and space, which supports multiple measures placement reform.

Lessons for the Field: Institutional Flexibility, Retesting and Academic Supports

Based on the variation in the placement process between the KSU-Kent and KSU-Stark campuses included in the field work, and the larger context of Ohio placement policy, the following lessons may be applied in other states and institutions:

  • Institutional flexibility is both an opportunity and a challenge. The comparison between KSU-Main and KSU-Stark highlights why state or system policy that allows for institutional flexibility can be both a challenge and opportunity. Providing considerable institutional flexibility may lead to variable experiences for students, even within the same university system. However, the flexibility also allows institutions to adapt their placement processes to best support the student demographic they are most likely to encounter. Policymakers need to weigh the opportunities and challenges that come with designing a placement policy that affords a great deal of institutional flexibility.
  • Promote placement retesting. KSU-Stark was very diligent about encouraging students to retake the ALEKS placement test after taking the six-week module. The campus went so far as to develop “boot camps” where students could come to campus and take the modules with other students to add a level of accountability and support. Far too many students at KSU-Kent and KSU-Stark did not take advantage of the opportunity to retest after working on the learning modules. This was reportedly due to students’ lack of understanding about the benefits of retesting.
  • Academic supports and placement reforms implemented concurrently can support student success. With shifts in the placement of students, the KSU math department has redesigned the department’s requirements and added academic supports for students. Specifically, placement based on whether a student’s intended major requires Algebra and the development of “stretch/plus” hybrid courses in math provide additional supports for students.
  1. Assessment and Learning in Knowledge Spaces (ALEKS) is an online diagnostic assessment and learning system used to determine student skills in math as well as other topic areas and provide instruction to address areas of weakness. It is used for placement testing in mathematics and chemistry at Kent State University.
  2. Ohio Department of Higher Education: https://www.ohiohighered.org/sites/ohiohighered.org/files/uploads/college-readiness/2016_UNIFORM_STATEWIDE_REMEDIATION_FREE_STANDARDS.pdf
  3. College Readiness and Remediation Free Standards Recommendations: Report to the Ohio College Readiness Advisory Committee English Language Arts Faculty Panel, Math/Science Faculty Panel, and Ready for College Subgroup of Ohio Board of Regents Completion Task Force (September 2012):  https://ohiohighered.org/sites/ohiohighered.org/files/uploads/college-readiness/2012_Faculty_Panels_College_Readiness_Report.pdf
  4. In spring 2017, the GED was added as a measure of college-readiness at Kent State University-Stark as well.
  5. The Kent State University Math Emporium model uses adaptive software and one-on-one support to help students learn what they need at their own pace.
  6. Student takes the Compass Writing Test if their ACT score is <12 as part of a CABLE program pilot.
  7. https://www.kent.edu/advising/placement-assessment-general-information