Finding Student Potential in Noncognitive Skills

By Ross Markle

Research shows students placed in developmental education are less likely to complete their courses of study than their peers who move immediately into college-level courses. Columbia University’s Community College Research Center reports only 33 percent of students referred to developmental math courses and 46 percent referred to developmental reading courses ever move on to complete the developmental sequence.

These figures impact a significant number of students, with roughly 50 percent of students in community colleges and 20 percent of students at four-year institutions placed into developmental education at enrollment.

The use of traditional placement tests usually presents a black-and-white solution: students who score above a cut score are placed in credit-bearing courses, while those who score below are placed into developmental education. This strategy of assessing a narrow set of skills lacks the ability to consider the whole student — something that requires a more nuanced approach.

Characterizing a student’s potential must go beyond current course placement models. A wealth of research has shown that factors outside of academic achievement (i.e., what is measured by current placement tests) play a significant role in students’ abilities to succeed and persist inside the classroom.

Where is the disconnection?

The fact is that sifting through an eclectic student body trying to identify students ready to succeed in college-level courses is an arduous task that falls on already overstretched advisors and staff. With pressure on community colleges to improve retention and completion rates, there should be a more efficient and holistic strategy in place.

At ETS we agree with experts in the field that there are many students who are capable of succeeding in college-level courses, but who are not placed in them upon enrollment. As a research-based organization, we wanted to see how our noncognitive assessment, SuccessNavigator®, could identify more students who scored below placement cut-off scores, but also reported strong enough noncognitive abilities that they might be able to succeed in credit-bearing courses.

Our study analyzed how effective the SuccessNavigator assessment Math Course Acceleration Index was in identifying such students. The index provides a composite measure of noncognitive skills and, if available, high school GPA that can be used in concert with an existing placement test. When students placed near a cut score, the course acceleration index was used to see if additional information suggested the student was likely to succeed if accelerated into a higher level course.

We worked with one large, urban community college system to conduct the study with students undergoing mathematics course placement. Students whose math placement test scores fell slightly below the cutoff were identified as students in the “decision zone.” The combination of student academic achievement and noncognitive skills assessment through the SuccessNavigator assessment’s course acceleration index produced a recommendation to advisors whether to accelerate the student or not.

There were encouraging results. Students accelerated into college-level courses using the SuccessNavigator assessment to complement math placement test scores were compared to students who scored in a similar range as the “decision zone” but above the cut score.  Accelerated students passed their courses at indistinguishably similar rates as those students placed into college-level courses “naturally.” The SuccessNavigator assessment was able to identify a subgroup of students who would have been placed into developmental education but who also possessed the ability to succeed in college-level courses.

In a climate of ever-decreasing funding, demands on community colleges for increased completion rates require institutions to think about both efficiency and affordability. Noncognitive assessment may reveal important information about students that many institutions have yet to collect.

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