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Community College Placement: Lessons from North Carolina

Olga Rodriguez October 25, 2016
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This post is part of an occasional series examining how California can learn from policies in other states.

Every year, California’s community colleges identify the vast majority of entering students as not ready for college-level courses in math and English. Since these courses are required to earn a degree or transfer to a four-year college, students deemed underprepared are placed in developmental (also known as remedial or basic-skills) courses to prepare for college work. Placement has a profound effect on students’ college trajectory: most developmental education students never earn a degree or transfer.

Concerns about poor outcomes have led California’s community colleges to reexamine their assessment and placement policies. How do colleges currently assess and place students? Are too many students placed into developmental courses? At PPIC, we will examine this topic in the months ahead. Reforms in other states can also help inform upcoming changes in California.

Policy: Uniform Assessment Test and Cut Scores in North Carolina

Prior to 2013, the North Carolina Community College System (NCCCS) allowed a great deal of local autonomy in assessment and placement policies—similar to California’s community colleges today. NCCCS provided a list of permitted assessments, but each of the 58 colleges decided on the specific tests (e.g., Accuplacer, Compass, or Asset tests) and cut-off scores that determined students’ math and English placement. Local policymaking lets colleges take into account their course offerings—which can differ a great deal, especially at the developmental or pre-collegiate level—and the needs of the specific populations being served. But allowing individual colleges to determine placement rules inevitably leads to varying definitions of what it means to be college ready.

In 2012, research by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University found that placement tests were only weakly predictive of success in college courses at NCCCS and that high school records were as useful or better at predicting college-level course success. Beginning in 2013, NCCCS implemented several reforms that transformed its assessment and placement system: multiple measures, a customized diagnostic math assessment, and uniform placement rules. In addition, students achieving a minimum high school GPA or SAT/ACT score could enroll in college-level courses without having to take a placement test.

Policy Impact

There are a number of arguments for uniform assessment and placement policies: they can set a common definition of college readiness, align high school and college expectations, allow states to measure performance across colleges, and facilitate transfer between colleges in the same system.

Early evidence from Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, North Carolina, also suggests that systemwide assessment and placement reform can significantly increase the number of students directly enrolling in college-level math and English. At Central Piedmont, 54% of students enrolled directly into these courses in fall 2015, up from 36% in fall 2012. It also appears that more students were able to complete college courses with no significant changes in pass rates. As more data is collected and analyzed, it will be important to see if these promising findings hold for colleges across the system and for different student groups.

Lessons for California

As California’s community colleges plan to implement a common assessment, the system must balance centralized decision making and local autonomy as well as rigorous standards and broader access. There is mounting evidence that more consistent and broader access to college-level courses contributes to improved student progress and more equitable outcomes. But some research does suggest that these reforms could result in lower course pass rates. For this reason, broader access to college-level courses should be complemented by increased support for faculty and academic supports for struggling students.

Learn more

Read Higher Education in California: Improving College Completion
Visit the PPIC Higher Education Center

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