Instruction Commission Efficiency Report

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Instruction Commission Efficiency Report

July 15


This document outlines summarizes Washington State’s community and technical colleges’ instructional practices, summarizes national research of best practices, and recommendations instructional change to decrease student time to degree completion.


On February 9, 2011 Michele Johnson, WACTC President, sent a letter to commissions and respective councils with an assignment to analyze promising efficiencies for system implementation. The task of each work group was to provide a thorough analysis and recommendations for implementing statewide strategies to increase efficiency and effectiveness in community and technical colleges. The Instruction Commission was tasked with analyzing and planning for:

  1. A statewide agreed-upon college placement exam and associated cut-off scores for math, reading and writing.

  2. Strategies to significantly reduce time to certificate and degree attainment.

  3. Performance funding structure/allocation to create incentives for new efficiencies identified in one (1) above.

Work groups associated with Instruction Commission councils and faculty members were created to accomplish the tasks set forth by WACTC.

Note: The adoption of these recommendations is dependent on local and state budgets and will be outlined in more detail through the cost consideration models being developed by the Business Administration Commission. The Instruction Commission is concerned that implementing these strategies without sufficient resources will stretch the community and technical college human capital beyond capacity.
This report is separated into three sections that reflect the tasks named above.

Current placement assessment practice in Washington CTCs.
In spring 2011, the Diagnostics, Assessment and Placement Work Group gathered and compiled information related to campus policies related to placement. While there are variations in specific policies related to placement, all Washington community and technical colleges use some kind of standardized test to assess students in math, writing and reading and then place them in math and English courses based on those scores. The specific tests used are determined by individual colleges; roughly two-thirds of the colleges use COMPASS (produced by ACT), while the other one-third uses ACCUPLACER (from College Board). In the area of math, two colleges have developed their own local placement tests and a few colleges offer multiple test options.
While there are numerous differences in their specific details (e.g., ACCUPLACER is web-based), both COMPASS and ACCUPLACER are suites of computer adaptive tests – the items presented to students branch and vary based on the number and difficulty of previous correct response – that can be customized in a variety of ways based on local decisions. This approach provides for considerable flexibility as well as efficiency (length of testing sessions, immediacy of scores) but also can make accurate student placement in courses more challenging. Both test suites offer diagnostic tests as well as their placement tests, but because diagnostic tests are more expensive and more time-consuming, colleges rarely include them in their standard implementation.
Local colleges determine cut scores for student placement into classes based on math and English curriculum. These cut scores vary across the system, especially in math. Based on the results of a 2008 system survey regarding math placement practices, most colleges provide some sort of individual advising and score interpretation immediately after the placement test; allow at least one retest; and offer some kind of challenge process, varying from talking to the testing manager to formal requests submitted to a dean or academic department.
Summary of findings related to literature, research, and best practices regarding higher education placement assessment
Historically entry placement testing served to sort students into classes by skill level- a process seen as essential for open-admissions institutions like community and technical colleges. Particularly for community and technical colleges, placement tests reflect and enforce “hidden” college readiness standards that have a significant impact on students’ lives in terms of costs and opportunities for achieving their career and life goals. With few exceptions, this process has been relatively obscure and little-known outside of college testing centers. In the past decade or so, several factors have converged to spotlight entry assessment and placement including:

  • Explicit emphasis on educational standards, especially with regard to college and career-readiness;

  • Policy attention regarding the lack of articulation and connections across the educational system;

  • Increased understanding of the community and technical college role in providing educational opportunity to a growing population of students historically under-served by higher education;

  • Recognition of amount and cost of remediation at the postsecondary level, and in particular the significant “gatekeeper” role played by mathematics.

The most commonly used placement tests (COMPASS and ACCUPLACER) serve as relatively weak predictors of college-level success and ineffective at identifying who is likely to benefit from a specific kind of academic intervention. A single defined cutoff point on a test exaggerates the distinction between “developmental” and “college-ready.”

Students generally take placement tests without full understanding of purpose and significance.

  • Placement tests offer little or no information relevant to faculty or classroom instruction.

  • Colleges rely solely on single standardized test and have little systematic or ongoing deliberation about placement choices and issues. (Safran & Visher, 2010)

The thorough review of developmental education placement assessment policies and practices around the country by Hughes and Scott-Clayton (2010) concluded that centralized placement policies tend to minimize institution-specific factors and have a number of negative unintended consequences, including many incorrect placements and increased costs due to excessive remediation. Evidence continues to mount that relying on a single standardized test and determining system or state cut scores are not good solutions to accurate assessment and placement of students in community and technical colleges. Two-year colleges and systems around the country are beginning to explore and experiment with a wide variety of approaches to assessment and placement. Based on this work, a consensus is building around emerging “good practice” principles:

  • Offering multiple measures, including options like transcripts and “directed self-placement,” to provide non-test alternatives for entering students.

  • Incorporating a consistent diagnostic focus on strengths and weaknesses rather than solely on course placement decisions.

  • Providing students with a “college readiness” profile based on multiple indices, including both academic and affective dimensions.

  • Accelerating student progress into college-level work by enabling students to place into the highest possible level of pre-college studies and still be successful.

  • Collaborating with K-12 partners to offer early assessment, align curricula, and reduce amount of remediation required by recent high school graduates.

  • Maintaining faculty involvement in college-level placement processes and decisions.

Recommendations for placement and diagnostic assessment.
A number of states have implemented or are considering a common process or a single test for their college system, sometimes with common or recommended cut scores, especially for determining “college readiness.” However, the evidence is mixed at best as to whether system standardization reduces costs and improves the effectiveness of placement. Prince (2005) argues, to have the best chance of producing a positive impact for students, assessment and placement approaches need to be thoughtfully and carefully integrated into a holistic overhaul of the entire pre-college structure and operation. Based on this existing research and the evidence for good practice principles noted above, the work group recommends against selecting a single placement test and determining statewide common cut scores. Such an approach would produce a surface solution to a deeper and more complex problem.
Because the current literature cited earlier argues strongly in favor of the use of multiple measures for placement, our recommendation is that students should have the opportunity to participate in a dynamic and informed assessment process incorporating multiple, valid predictors of performance. This process will provide both the institution and the student with the information needed to make informed decisions about course placement. Based on a holistic placement assessment process, the following specific recommendations will improve system efficiency by reducing the amount of time students spend in pre-college courses and accelerating their progress to and through college-level coursework while maintaining academic standards and institutional flexibility.
Recommendation 1: Colleges will use multiple measures of readiness in determining student placement.
We recommend community and technical college system move away from a single standardized test as the determiner of student placement. The goal is to rely on multiple sources of evidence that would place the student as high as possible and still promote student success. Students would not be required to complete multiple assessments, nor would colleges be obligated to assess every incoming student in multiple ways; the recommendation is that placement test scores should not be the only measure available. Colleges should use multiple assessment methods, as needed, to optimize placement accuracy, and in particular, to minimize inappropriate placement at developmental levels. Students and college staff should be encouraged to review placement evidence available for individual students and provide an opportunity for student input into the placement decision. To meet this goal, colleges would make available a menu of assessment tools. The available options may include:

  • COMPASS, AccuPlacer, or other commercial placement tests, including the diagnostic components of these tests.

  • Other standardized tests, such as SAT, ACT, or Math Placement Test (MPT), as well as the CASAS tests required of all adult basic education students.

  • Affective measures.

  • Locally developed, authentic assessments (e.g., writing samples).

  • High school transcripts or self-report of prior school performance.

  • Directed self-placement or delayed placement options.

  • Credit for prior learning.

Colleges can incorporate diagnostic assessments into the placement process. Diagnosis of specific skills is necessary in order to support and promote innovations like delayed placement and curricular modules that target specific academic deficiencies rather than requiring all students to take full courses regardless of their specific skills and needs.


This recommendation offers several advantages to the system; providing access to multiple measures or sources of evidence for placement:

  • Provides for immediate implementation without requiring colleges to abandon current commercial instruments.

  • Encourages students to participate actively in their own assessment process, increasing their engagement in that process and commitment to the courses they select.

  • Promotes college experimentation with innovative placement assessment alternatives such as directed self-placement, delayed placement, and modularized remediation.

  • Emphasizes a “highest-best” model that explicitly focuses on helping the student identify the highest-possible course placement as a starting point.

Recommendation 2: Colleges will use high school transcripts for placement in English and Math placement.
High school students entering Washington community and technical colleges within a certain defined time frame after graduation can be allowed to use their high school transcripts as a course placement alternative into English and math, based on which courses were completed successfully and when they were taken.

The underlying reason for transforming pre-college education in Washington community and technical colleges is to accelerate students’ progress through pre-college coursework and into college-level courses. For the significant numbers of students who enter the two-year college system directly from high school (or within 1-2 years), the best way to accelerate this progress is to help them avoid pre-college courses entirely by being better-prepared for college while in high school. Currently a handful of Washington community and technical colleges successfully use high school transcripts for placement into math classes. This practice can be extended state-wide (and broadened to include English as well as math) as we implement multiple measures of placement. Colleges can recognize coursework that students have done in high school in order to improve college preparation by encouraging rigorous course-taking prior to college and to build better partnerships with school districts and high school teachers in the process. The goal is to use the transcript-based process to inform students about what they can do to achieve readiness in English and mathematics before leaving high school and help motivate them to take needed steps in high school to achieve college readiness.

Recommendation 3: Adopt a statewide assessment tool that identifies affective skills and abilities of entering students and provides a portable "college readiness" profile.
The system can develop a statewide web-based assessment which addresses both core academic skills and affective domains (sometimes referred to as “soft skills,” e.g., personal responsibility, self-motivation and -awareness, time management, teamwork, and emotional intelligence) that will provide a reliable and valid “college readiness” profile for students entering the Washington community and technical college system.

  • Provide entering students with a clearer and more consistent understanding of their readiness to do college-level work.

  • Provide colleges with a more comprehensive profile for entering students that can be incorporated into the course placement process and/or be used to target the level and nature of intervention needed to help students succeed in college-level work.

Recommendation 4: Create a placement reciprocity agreement across the system.
At the same time that other recommendations are in process, the system can establish a statewide reciprocity agreement for student placement results. Further, the system can promote and encourage the creation of regional consortia placement agreements.

Given the well-documented limitations of commercial placement instruments it is not surprising that states with universal testing and cut-off scores have not seen appreciable improvements in student attainment. At the same time, it is also clear that students, high schools, college staff, and community partners can benefit from greater predictability in how student placement results are treated from one campus to another. A reciprocity agreement would provide students with predictability while avoiding some of the pitfalls inherent in commercial placement testing. The reciprocity approach:

  • Allows for the incorporation of multiple indices — including high school transcript evaluations and developmental course completion (e.g., “completion of English 09X”) — as reciprocal indicators of next-course placement.

  • Supports a variety of approaches to placement itself, thus encouraging experimentation with innovative assessment models.

  • Leverages the efficiencies of the state’s well-established processes for negotiating and implementing reciprocity agreements (e.g., transfer distribution requirements and diversity requirements).

  • Reinforces the principle of professional trust that underlies the mutual acceptance of course work, credentials, and competencies in lateral transfer.

  • Supports and leverages system-wide efforts to define “college-readiness” in competency-based and curriculum-based, rather than score-based terms.

  • Avoids the inefficiencies of cost, distraction, and delays that almost certainly would result from any statewide effort to identify a common placement instrument and set of cut scores.

Recommendation 5: Provide a comprehensive pre-test orientation process for students.
Colleges can provide a comprehensive orientation preceding the placement testing process that provides an orientation to the purpose and nature of the test, raises awareness about the importance of the placement process, communicates to students the high stakes nature of assessment, and provides them with options and resources for test preparation. This orientation may need to be mandatory, at least for some students, based on the results of their “college readiness profile.”
Colleges may choose a combination of methods for implementation that work best for their student population. To facilitate implementation colleges will be provided with two key tools: 1) a state of the art video that can be customized at each campus, explaining to students the purposes of placement testing in the Washington community and technical college system as well as 2) a checklist of key points to be covered in an assessment orientation.


Research indicates that many students are not adequately prepared for their placement tests and/or are often not aware of the ramifications of their assessment results. This lack of preparation often leads to students not exerting adequate effort when completing assessments, resulting in inaccurately low placement in the developmental sequence. Some students, particularly those who have been out of school for some time, may only need a refresher of key concepts. It is this group who is often placed into classes that do not match their abilities, causing additional time and expense to realize their educational goals and increasing the probability that they will not attain a degree or certificate. Many of these students report that with a brief review, they would be able to perform better on placement tests, allowing them to move more quickly through required courses to complete their education.

Assessment, Diagnostic and Placement Implementation Plan:


Who is responsible?

Recommended Time Frame

Create a joint IC/SSC steering committee (include representatives from WARP, CBS, ARC, FACTC, testing centers) to provide coordination and ongoing oversight for the implementation process

Joint IC/WSSSC steering committee (include representatives from WARP, CBS, ARC, ATC, testing, FACTC)

August-September 2011

Develop separate working subgroups (recruiting additional expertise from key stakeholder groups as needed) to address specific issues related to each of the main recommendations:

  • Development and distribution process for information about promising practices around existing innovations with respect to multiple options for placement

  • Transcript-based placement (include OSPI and other K-12 partners)

  • College readiness profile assessment

  • Placement reciprocity process

  • College processes around placement test orientation and preparation

[See below for some specifics regarding each of the workgroups.]

Joint Steering Committee and associated work groups.

Fall 2011

Development and distribution process for information about promising practices around existing innovations with respect to multiple options for placement

Organize and synthesize resources. Compile during spring 2011 data-gathering process.

Develop or utilize existing web-based repository for making resources available.

Design structured process for colleges to use locally in sharing resources with appropriate faculty and staff.

Joint Committee

By December 2011

Transcript-based placement (include OSPI and other K-12 partners)

Convene a group of English and math faculty to meet with faculty at other community and technical colleges who worked with their local school districts to implement using high school transcripts as part of the placement process.

Work with the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to identify courses, along with acceptable course grades and how recent the courses were taken, to determine placement of high school graduates into a college-level English and/or math course, or into a pre-college English and/or pre-college math course

Consider whether this approach makes most sense on a local, regional, or statewide basis.

Before full implementation, data should be gathered to assess the effectiveness of using the new process.

Joint Committee

By December 2011

College readiness profile assessment

Review existing Washington college readiness standards and related work (e.g., Student Attributes for Math Success project) and develop specific areas to be addressed by the assessment, including: academic strengths and weaknesses, affective strengths and weaknesses, motivation, etc.

Evaluate major existing alternatives (e.g., College Student Inventory, COMPASS and ACCUPLACER diagnostics, etc.) and explore possible platforms for administering the assessment, including; review customization options, validity and reliability for all measures; conduct fiscal analysis of top alternatives

Resolve feasibility issues and potential implementation issues that may arise (staffing, cost, time, enrollment timelines, advising)

Implement college readiness assessment on optional basis and collect data on impact (fall 2013)

Joint Committee

Fall 2011-Spring 2013

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