Using the SuccessNavigator™ Assessment in Course Placement Decisions

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Narrators/commentators as noted below in text.

Narrator – Ross Markle, Senior Research and Assessment Advisor for the Educational Testing Service


Transcript Body

On-screen: [Using the SuccessNavigator™ Assessment in Course Placement Decisions. ETS® SuccessNavigator™]

Narrator – Ross Markle: One important area where the SuccessNavigator™ assessment can indicate student success is course placement. The SuccessNavigator™ assessment is not itself a placement test, but a supplement that can be added to any existing placement system, allowing institutions to consider psychosocial factors and ultimately improve the accuracy of course placement decisions and increase student success.

Across higher education, too many students are placed into developmental courses. Research has shown that students placed into remedial courses face significantly disparate rates of success, with fewer than 1 in 4 ultimately receiving their degree.

However, by considering a holistic set of student characteristics, we can better identify indicators of success and accelerate those students whose noncognitive skills indicate that they might succeed in higher level courses. In doing so, we shorten the path to success, avoiding the long and difficult track of developmental education.

Let's briefly demonstrate how the SuccessNavigator™ assessment's course acceleration indices can be used to improve course placement decisions. Again, as the SuccessNavigator™ assessment is designed to be used alongside an existing placement test, it is important to demonstrate the use of holistic assessment and course acceleration in a larger course placement process.

Consider a course sequence that has three levels: a college-level course, a higher developmental course and a lower developmental course. In this case, our existing placement exam, which has traditionally been used as a stand-alone tool for placement, ranges from 0 to 100, with students scoring above 80 placed into the college-level course, students scoring between 41-80 placed into the higher level developmental course and students scoring 40 or below placed into the lower developmental course.

On-Screen: [Table Showing Course Placements:

Placement Test Score (Range 0 – 100) Course Placement
0 – 40 Low Developmental Course
41 – 80 High Developmental Course
Above 80 College-Level Course


The SuccessNavigator™ assessment is most effective when used at these decision points — both near the 40-point mark between the low and high developmental course and near the 80-point mark between the high developmental course and the college-level course. As such, admissions and placement test scores are not included in the course acceleration index, once again, since the placement indices are designed to supplement such tests.

This is because the factors measured by the SuccessNavigator™ assessment provide additional information around this criterion. For students who score just below a placement cut score, the acceleration indices signify key noncognitive skills, unmeasured by the existing placement test, that can indicate success. Although students might lack some of the content knowledge to place into a particular course, their cocurricular skills can help them account for that slight deficiency, succeed and persist.

On-Screen: [Bar chart showing results for Student A and the "Criterion for Success" threshold. Bar for Placement Test Scores Alone is just below the criterion. Bar for Holistic Assessment (SuccessNavigator™) is above the criterion.]

It is important to note that, because of such low rates of success in developmental education and recent research in support of course acceleration, both yellow and green indicators recommend acceleration. It is also important to know that standardized test scores, such as placement tests, aren't used in the calculation of the course acceleration indices. This is so that the recommendations can be used at various decision points across the placement spectrum, regardless of the type of test or score range that is being used.

On-Screen: [Advisor Report: Course Acceleration Indices Showing: Math: Caution (Yellow); English: Yes (Green)]

In terms of making actual placement decisions, we encourage institutions to create "Decision Zones" around each cut score, which guide advisors and others who make course placement decisions. Using our course placement example, we've created a 10-point Decision Zone around each of our two placement decisions. The determination of the size of your Decision Zone can be done in several ways, such as taking one standard error of measurement below the cut score, or by considering students in the top 20 percent of a placement band. Regardless of how this Decision Zone is determined, this helps identify a group of students who are eligible for acceleration that could reasonably be considered for a higher-level course.

On-screen: [Table of a Decision Zone:

Placement Test Score SuccessNavigator Course Acceleration Indicator
Yellow – Caution Green – Accelerate
0-30 Low Developmental Course Low Developmental Course
31-40 Low Developmental Course/High Developmental Course High Developmental Course
41-70 High Developmental Course High Developmental Course
71-83 High Developmental Course/College-Level Course College-Level Course
Above 83 College-Level Course College-Level Course


Once a student has scored in this Decision Zone, we can then consider the course acceleration index to determine the student's placement. If the student receives a placement score of 36 and their course acceleration index is green, we would recommend that the student be accelerated from the lower-level developmental course into the higher developmental course. If the same student's acceleration index were yellow, however, again — we would still recommend that student be accelerated. However, an effective plan of cocurricular supports should be developed in order to support this student's early success. This might include supplemental instruction, tutoring or peer mentoring.

Once again, it is important to emphasize that the SuccessNavigator™ assessment is designed to work in concert with existing placement tests, and is maximally effective when used to improve decisions around placement cut scores.

Let's summarize a few key points about course acceleration:

First, placement should always be based on multiple pieces of information. The need for the SuccessNavigator™ assessment did not come about because the placement test scores are invalid predictors of success, but simply because they are insufficient on their own. The same could be said for the SuccessNavigator™ assessment. Placement decisions are best made when institutions have several pieces of reliable and valid information.

Second, research supports the practice of course acceleration whenever possible. Given that students placed into developmental courses face such a long road to success, in some cases requiring four semesters of non-credit bearing coursework before they can enter a college-level course, placing them into higher-level courses makes sense.

However, we must also consider the importance of cocurricular supports. The same researchers who promote course acceleration, such as those at the Community College Research Center, also indicate the importance of appropriate support for students. This is true even for students who score above placement cut scores. In order to have a significant impact on student success, we must make better decisions, not only in how we place students, but in how we interact with them after that placement.

As such, I conclude our discussion of course placement with a final important point. Always remember that our goal here is not to improve course placement, but to improve student success in the long term. Setting students on the right path is an important part of that, but success is a long-term and iterative process.

On-Screen: [ETS® SuccessNavigator™. We're here to help. For additional guidance, please call 1-800-745-0269 or visit