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Middlesex Community College: Piloting Math Placement based on High School GPA

This case study describes the experiences of an institution that chose to follow new state recommendations on piloting the use of multiple measures for student placement with limited material or technical assistance from the state for implementation. In this instance, Middlesex Community College piloted the use of high school GPA in student placement decisions for math courses, initially following state-recommended cut scores and eventually adjusting cut scores based on early internal data. While the campus was still in the piloting phase at the time of the site visit, this case study provides a description of the placement process implemented, early successes and challenges, 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, so this case study provides 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 Middlesex Community College included interviews with seven administrators, five faculty members, and two focus groups with students recently placed into coursework. Institutional documents and online resources were reviewed prior to field work. The institution referenced, but did not provide, early internal analyses it had 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.

Massachusetts Board of Higher Education Policy: High School GPA Recommended but Not Required

Since 2014, the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education has encouraged two- and four-year institutions in the state to pilot the use of high school GPA as part of the college placement process and offered guidance on criteria for placement. The state recommends that recent high school graduates with a GPA of 2.70 or higher be exempt from the initial placement exam and placed directly into college-level math. Recent high school graduates with a GPA lower than 2.7 but higher than 2.40, who have successfully passed four math courses including in their senior year, should also be exempt from the initial placement exam and placed into college-level math courses, but they should be given additional support. The state recommends that students with a GPA between 2.4 and 2.7 that do not meet this criterion, as well as those with a GPA below 2.4, be placed according to the Accuplacer exam.

Institutional Context

Background: A Large Community College with Two Campuses

Middlesex Community College (MCC), founded in 1970, has grown to become one of the largest community colleges in Massachusetts, with two campuses in suburban Bedford and the city of Lowell.1 The characteristics of students at Middlesex Community College as of fall 2015 are outlined in Table 1.

Table 1. Student Characteristics at Middlesex Community College2

Impetus for Change: Perceived Misalignment on College Readiness

Faculty and administrators at Middlesex Community College had long felt there was misalignment between K-12 and postsecondary college readiness standards, and they felt that some students were experiencing developmental math courses as barriers, rather than building blocks, to success. In 2013, the Board of Higher Education agreed with them. Responding to a report from the newly-initiated Commissioner’s Task Force on Transforming Developmental Math Education, the board introduced new recommended criteria for math placement using high school GPA, and asked campuses to pilot these criteria during the 2014-15 academic year. Middlesex administrators, also aware of emerging national research from Complete College America, were quick to opt in. They created an intra-departmental working group tasked with making decisions about the pilot and institutional placement policies in the future.

Placement Measures: Piloting the Use of High School GPA in addition to Accuplacer Scores to Determine Math Placement

MCC administers the Accuplacer for all incoming students in math, reading, and writing. However, since the inception of the high school GPA math placement pilot in 2014-15, first time-college students who have graduated in the last three years have had the option to be placed in college-level math by their high school GPA, rather than their Accuplacer math scores.

Figure 1, below, outlines the math placement process for all incoming students, excluding STEM majors (who are required to place into Calculus with qualifying Accuplacer scores).

Figure 1. Middlesex Community College Placement Process for Math Courses

The college regularly receives transcripts from several area high schools, and students may also submit transcripts themselves. During the spring 2016 semester, students with a GPA of 2.7 or above could place into college-level math courses (with the exception of Calculus) regardless of their Accuplacer score.

Initially, MCC followed the state Board of Higher Education’s recommendation that students with GPAs from 2.4-2.7 and four years of high school math should also be placed in college-level courses, but given additional supports to help them succeed. MCC has since eliminated this pathway, citing internal research that found that those students were not faring well in college-level math.

Placement Process: Testing Administration and Manuel Review of Transcripts

Even as MCC was piloting the use of high school GPA for math placement, all new students were still directed towards a Testing Center appointment to take the Accuplacer exam. Testing Center employees explained requirements and test scores; they also providede a packet of information on opportunities for refresher courses and re-testing for students placed into developmental courses.

Testing Center employees also informed qualifying students that they might place into college-level courses based on their high school GPA. This communication wass done on a case-by-case basis; the pilot placement process was not publicized on the college’s website or in Testing Center materials. If a student’s high school did not provide transcripts directly to MCC, a student might obtain an official transcript and submit it to MCC. Transcripts were reviewed manually by Admissions staff, and scores were entered into the college’s student data system to inform course placement.

Students are encouraged to meet with an advisor during the testing and registration process or attend one of the college’s introductory group orientation sessions.

Implementation and Impact: Perceived Progress, Early Adjustments and Remaining Challenges

In exploring the successes and challenges of implementing the new placement model and collecting institutionally-developed data on the impact to students, the following findings emerge:

  • Math faculty supported the use of measures beyond Accuplacer, but they expressed more confidence in high school transcripts than overall GPA as an indicator of math ability. Some said they would prefer further examination of high school courses and grades, especially in Algebra 2. Faculty also expressed concern that feeder high schools varied in quality and GPAs might not be comparable.
  • Faculty support for the policy increased based on early evidence indicating the success of students placed in college-level math courses based on high school GPAs above 2.7. The sample was small (roughly 100 students) and results were mixed, but faculty and administrators expressed excitement that a number of students who otherwise would have been placed in remedial classes were able to succeed in college-level courses.
  • Early data analysis led MCC to raise GPA cut scores. The college opted to stop placing students with GPAs between 2.4-2.7 in college-level math after data showed that they were struggling. Math faculty lauded this decision to break with the state’s recommendations.
  • More staff and technology were needed to support comprehensive transcript review. Obtaining and analyzing transcripts was a new and resource-intensive activity for Admissions staff, and the process was especially challenging when students enrolled at the last minute. Moreover, the process was complicated by a number of facts. For example, high schools varied in their timeliness when providing transcripts to MCC. Their GPA scales also varied, and some did not provide GPA on transcripts at all, leaving MCC staff to calculate it for each incoming student. Administrators stressed that, as the reform is scaled up, this system would become unsustainable. In the future, they hoped to contract with a provider of e-transcripts, but had failed to obtain any additional state funding to assist with this process.
  • Some faculty and administrators felt that the placement process did not account for important non-cognitive characteristics that influence student success, such as grit and study skills. Since 2013, MCC has made big changes to accelerate its developmental education modules and ensure that they reflect the soft skills necessary for students to succeed in college-level courses. Faculty and administrators were proud that remediation, which formerly required at least 2-3 semesters, was now often completed in less than one semester. However, they worried that student placement still neglected the importance of non-cognitive indicators.
  • Students report a lack of accurate information about MCC’s placement policies. Despite the institution’s mandated advising policy, many MCC students interviewed had not received advising prior to placement. The majority did not receive clear explanations of how Accuplacer worked, how their placement decisions had been made, or what impacts placement might have on their college trajectory. Students who initially performed poorly on Accuplacer had been given packets of information with sample questions and told they could retest up to two times. However, many were not aware of the availability of “refresher” courses. Students indicated that they did not receive much direction from testing administrators, and several reported a distracting testing environment.
  • Students did not challenge their placement. Some felt that they had been accurately placed, and others felt that they may have been able to handle more challenging course work, but none had challenged their English or math placement.

Lessons for the Field: Collaboration, Communication, and Capacity

MCC’s placement process and experiences with implementation of the GPA pilot for math placement yield the following lessons that may be applied in other states and institutions:

  • Collaboration and camaraderie are key to campus buy-in. MCC created an intra-departmental working group tasked with making decisions about the pilot and institutional placement policies. Strong collaboration between admissions, advising, and academic affairs staff on the task force helped MCC achieve buy-in across faculty and the administration for policy change.
  • Early data analysis can inform and improve decisions about cut scores and influence faculty buy-in. Internal data on student success from the high school GPA pilot led to a course-correction in placement policy, and also helped administrators build faculty support for the policy.
  • Without strong and effective communication, testing, advising and placement policies remain unclear to students. Colleges must communicate with students early and often and find ways to incentivize or require participation in student orientation and advising prior to placement.
  • State guidance can encourage institutions to experiment with multiple measures placement, but without financial or technical support, institutional capacity to implement policy changes may be limited. MCC faculty and administrators exhibited strong support for the use of multiple measures for placement. However, they continue to struggle with staff capacity to support implementation without financial assistance from the state to support their endeavors.
  1. Middlesex Community College Introduction to the College
  2. Middlesex Community College Statistics