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Ozarks Technical Community College: Self-Guided Student Placement

This case study provides an example of the type of placement 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, Ozarks Technical Community College allowed students to take the lead in determining their course placement through a voluntary, self-directed online process that provided students with course descriptions and guiding questions designed to help them assess their own college readiness. While the college was still in the pilot phase 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, 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 Ozarks Technical Community College included interviews with 10 administrators, 15 faculty members, and three focus groups 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 policies on student outcomes. Once drafted, this case study was provided to the primary institutional contact for review and verification.

State Policy: Recommendations with Limited Requirements

In 2012, passage of HB1042 required that the Missouri Department of Higher Education develop the Principals of Best Practices in Remedial Education, a guiding document that includes the use of multiple measures for student placement. All institutions were expected to use multiple measures by the start of the 2015-16 academic year. Institutions were given latitude to select from an array of assessment instruments to place students in college-level courses, including—but not limited to—SAT or ACT scores, Accuplacer results, Asset or COMPASS placement tests, high school grade point average, high school end-of-course examination scores, or an institutionally created assessment. Campuses that utilized the listed measures were also required to use specific cut scores determined by the state.1> The state of Missouri recently began administering the ACT to all high school juniors, creating an environment that allows for easy use of the ACT as a measure for placement.

Institutional Context

Background: A Large, Urban Community and Technical College

Ozarks Technical Community College (OTC) was founded in 1990 when the residents of the Springfield school district and 13 surrounding public school districts voted to establish a “community technical college.”2 OTC is a two-year institution based in Springfield, the third-largest city in the state and the home of Missouri State University, Drury University, and several other postsecondary institutions. The college offers certificates and associate degrees, as well as other programs. The characteristics of students at OTC as of fall 2015 are outlined in Table 1.

Table 1. Student Characteristics at Ozarks Technical Community College3,4

Impetus for Change: The loss of COMPASS, the students served and a history of Innovation

A combination of factors, such as the discontinuation of the COMPASS placement test, changes in state policy, and a desire to recognize student commitment and motivation as a factor in academic success, inspired OTC to change its student placement approach.  Previously, OTC used ACT scores as an initial placement measure and required the COMPASS test for students who did not have ACT scores or who scored beneath the cut score for college-level courses. The shift to a process-focused on self-guided student placement was also due in part to the college’s recognition that: 1) Traditional placement testing was not accurately measuring course readiness, 2) Well over a third of students served have been out of high school for more than five years, calling into question the value of using high school GPA for placement, 3) A student’s level of motivation impacts their success in coursework, and 4) OTC is an institution that encourages innovation and taking risks. The new placement process was developed in the summer and fall of 2015 and then implemented in the spring of 2016, and it is a work-in-progress that administrators are committed to refining and improving over time.

Placement Process: Using ACT scores, Self-guided Placement Tools and Classroom Assessments to determine Course Placement

In spring 2016, placement at OTC consisted of a three-tiered process that began with the ACT, continued with guided self-placement, and was completed with in-class assessments provided by the English, reading and math departments; see Figure 1 below.

Figure 1. OTC Placement Process

When students applied to OTC, they could provide ACT scores; scores for recent high school graduates were automatically sent to the institution.  Students with ACT scores above the state-defined threshold were encouraged to register for college-level coursework. Students below the threshold, or without ACT scores, were referred to the “Getting Started” website that walks them through the necessary registration steps.

One of the steps is an online self-guided placement that tests student readiness in math, English and reading.  The guided self-placement was suggested, not required.  Students navigated the process as follows:

  1. Students were prompted to check the requirements of the certificate or degree they were planning to earn, and provided links to access that information.
  2. Students were prompted to check the course sequences and prerequisites for their end goal, and provided with diagrams and links to additional resources to determine this sequencing.
  3. Students were prompted to use the online placement resource to help determine their entry-level English, Math, or Reading course(s). The modules only provided recommendations; students determined their own placement. The college readiness indicators included are outlined in Table 2.

Table 2. College Readiness Indicators in Guided Self-Placement Modules

English Placement: Students who were working toward a certificate or degree program that required an English course, who had taken the ACT or COMPASS within the last three years, were prompted to enter their scores. The website generated their placement recommendation based on state-determined cut scores. Students without recent ACT or COMPASS scores were given a passage and, after reading it, had to write a summary. Upon completion, students were asked to respond to up to eight statements that gauge their reading and writing abilities, such as “I typically read and comprehend material well.”  Placement recommendations were generated based on the answers to these questions.

Reading Placement: Students were prompted to enter their ACT or COMPASS scores, if they had them.  The website generated their placement recommendation based on state-determined cut scores. Students without ACT or COMPASS scores were asked to respond to three questions that gauged their reading ability, such as “Do you read and understand material easily?” Placement recommendations were generated based on the answers to these questions.

Math Placement: Students answered questions about their intended course of study before being prompted to enter in their ACT or COMPASS scores.  Students who entered scores received a placement recommendation based on state-determined cut scores. Students without ACT or COMPASS scores were asked three questions to gauge their confidence in understanding math concepts, such as “Are you confident with your skills factoring polynomials?” Videos of sample problems were provided as a conceptual refresher.  Placement recommendations were generated based on the answers to these questions.

In-Class Assessment: Once classes began, students were given an essay prompt in English classes and the ALEKS diagnostic test in math classes to gather further placement information. If, based on these measures, the instructor was concerned about misplacement, the student received a recommendation to switch classes. However, a reportedly small portion of students moved to a new class.

Implementation and Impact: Increased College-Level Enrollment and Ongoing Concerns

Through interviews and focus groups with over two dozen administrators, faculty, and students, we explored the successes and challenges of implementing the new placement model. The institution also provided internal survey and student outcomes analyses that provide early findings on the impact of this placement reform on student success. Based on these data, the following findings emerge:

  • Guided self-placement increased enrollment in college-level courses and decreased enrollment in developmental education courses, but course completion rates decreased in most of these courses as well. Institutional outcomes data displayed in Figure 2 shows that enrollment in college-level math and English courses increased in most cases while enrollment in developmental education courses declined between spring 2015 and spring 2016. However, Figure 3 shows that in most of those same courses, completion rates decreased over the same period. While Math 128 showed the largest gains in enrollment (235%), it also experienced the largest decrease in completion rate (-18.5%).

Figure 2: Changes in Course Enrollment between Spring 2015 and Spring 2016

Figure 3: Changes in Course Completion Rates between Spring 2015 and Spring 2016

  • Support for placement reform was high, but concerns about student preparedness remained. During campus interviews, faculty and administrators universally viewed COMPASS as a poor measure for student placement, and generally supported student self-placement. However, at least half of both math (55%) and English (50%) faculty felt that their students were less prepared during the spring 2016 term compared to past terms, based on the results of institutionally-developed survey data; during the spring 2016 semester, the Guided Self-Placement Task Force at OTC surveyed faculty and students to gather data on their perceptions of the reform.5 During campus interviews, faculty reported that college-level courses had more students without the “soft skills” needed for college-level work: some failed to attend class regularly, lacked study skills, and skipped assignments. There was also concern among faculty about the elimination of developmental reading courses as more students enrolled in college-level English, and some questioned whether student reading ability would be strong enough for college-level work.
  • Student utilization of the guided self-placement process was limited. OTC’s guided self-placement policy was communicated to prospective students during recruiting events, on the “Getting Started” website, and in person during the STAR group advising sessions. However, based in internal student survey data on the college’s placement reform, only 16% of first term students at OTC reported that the guided self-placement process was a decision factor in their English, reading and/or math course selection. Larger percentages of first term students reported that degree or career plans (37%), course availability (25%) or STAR group advising sessions (22%) were decision factors in their course placement.
  • The majority of students were satisfied with the placement level they selected. As shown in Figure 4, internal student survey data shows that a strong majority of students reported being satisfied with the course levels they selected (89% in English, 75% in reading, 83% in math). Smaller majorities of students reported that they felt the skills required in their selected courses were consistent with their expectations (64% in English, 70% in reading and 58% in math). Students were most likely to feel that the math skills required for their courses was higher than expected (24%).

Figure 4: Student Perceptions of Course Selection Satisfaction and Alignment with Skill Expectations

  • Large increases in college-level course enrollment resulted in increased student visits to the college tutoring center. The Tutoring and Learning Center at OTC experienced a 4% increase among first-year students in spring 2016 as compared to spring 2015. In addition, enrollment increases in Math 128 between spring 2015 and spring 2016 (235%) resulted in a 323% increase in the number of visits to the center.

Lessons for the Field: Communication, Capacity and Curriculum

Based on the placement process at OTC, the focus on guided self-placement, and the larger context of Missouri placement policy, the following lessons may be applied in other states and institutions:

  • Communication is key. If an institution decides to embrace guided self-placement, students will need information to make the best decision. OTC’s resources clearly communicated which classes met specific major requirements, the sequence in which courses must be taken, and course descriptions. OTC also offered sample exercises to familiarize students with the material covered in each class. However, such a guided self-placement process needs to be integrated into the student orientation process to encourage greater utilization in making placement decisions.
  • Include assessments on the first day of class. The use of faculty-driven assessments and conversations on the first day of class, as well as structured opportunities for students to transfer into other classes or access other supports, may be effective steps in addressing misplacements.
  • Placement reform requires additional capacity. The institution determined that reviewing high school transcripts would require more capacity than it had available, which was part of the reasoning behind using self-guided placement. With more diverse ability levels in college-level classes, faculty are forced to address a broader array of both content and study skills in the classroom, while the Tutoring and Learning Center faced increased student need to provide assistance to students in college-level courses with increased enrollment.
  • Curricular and placement reform need to be implemented concurrently. With shifts in student placement, OTC has also had to determine how to change curricular supports and faculty roles to address the changing needs of students. Placement reform cannot take place without shifts in curricular design that can tackle the changing composition of students in college- and developmental-level classes. For instance, co-requisite courses (college-level courses with an additional support lab) can be offered to address student needs.

Self-Placement in Postsecondary Institutions

Self-placement is used on other campuses as well. Notably, several campuses in the California State University (CSU) system and the Community College of Vermont use directed self-placement. At CSU-San Bernardino, students complete a directed self-placement survey to help determine their first year composition course. At the Community College of Vermont, students take the Accuplacer test and also complete a course selection survey on their attitudes, behaviors, and commitments. Survey results are used to help students determine which math, reading and writing courses they will choose for their first semester.

  1. Coordinating Board for Higher Education Principles of Best Practices in Remedial Education
  3. About Ozarks Technical Community College
  4. Ozarks Technical Community College Fall 2015 Fact Sheet
  5. Ozarks Technical Community College Fall 2015 Enrollment