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Academic preparation isn’t the only factor in college readiness. Also helping to determine whether students get to graduation are social behaviors, like whether they show up for class, engage with professors and make eye contact. A new assessment from the Educational Testing Service (ETS) seeks to measure those non-academic variables.

ETS today is rolling out the test, which is called SuccessNavigator. It could help colleges identify students in remedial tracks who can pass credit-bearing, college-level courses, said officials with the nonprofit testing giant.

Steven Robbins, director of research innovation at ETS, said the test can be used in tandem with conventional placement exams to find students with remedial needs who have the motivation and other non-academic tools for success in college – a suite of attributes some researchers have dubbed “grit.”

SuccessNavigator is a “holistic assessment,” Robbins said, that can help break the “logjam” of remediation.

Remedial placement is a hot issue. Recent research has found that the two most popular placement tests – ACCUPLACER and COMPASS – may be shunting too many students into remedial courses, which are higher education’s black hole. Only one in four students who place into the courses receives a college credential within eight years.

Several experts said a non-academic test was a good idea and could help colleges better adjust the bar for college-level coursework. Few similar assessments exist, and none are widely used in tandem with placement tests.

“It makes sense to try it because we know the traditional methods aren’t working,” said Melinda Mechur Karp, a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

Karp has studied how non-academic skills, attitudes and behaviors can affect college completion. She said testing for those traits “broadens the notion of what it means to be college ready and college successful.”

Targeted Advising

ETS, a nonprofit testing giant, has worked to develop the test for seven years, Robbins said. The process featured field tests at 20 colleges and system, including four-year institutions as well as community colleges.

The test takes 30 minutes to complete. It is Web-based and non-proctored. Colleges pay for the assessment and the price is $5 per test taken, ETS officials said. It will be available this summer.

Students’ skill levels are assessed in four areas: commitment, self-management and social support, as well as academics.

SuccessNavigator is designed to be taken when students first enroll. But it can also be used to monitor progress – and red flags – as students move through academic programs.

Administrators at several colleges that partnered with ETS for field trials of the test said they were optimistic that it could be used to make academic advising more strategic. That would be particularly valuable for cash-strapped community colleges where there are often hundreds or even thousands of students for every adviser.

“Once a student takes the assessment it automatically generates a report that goes to the adviser,” Robbins said, adding that a “different one goes to the student.”

The reports include “customized action plans,” according to ETS. Plans feature tips for how students can build on their skills, such as by seeking out tutoring or careering counseling or improving their health and wellness.

City Colleges of Chicago has participated in the trials. Kevin Li is dean of instruction at Wilbur Wright College, which is part of the seven-college system. Li said he thinks the test can help the colleges provide targeted interventions when students are struggling. For one thing, it could allow instructors to reach out to students who are unlikely to seek assistance.

“We want to be able to speed up the students’ progress,” he said.

Students 'On the Cusp'

The new test could help City Colleges with its broad college completion push, which it is calling a "reinvention." The system’s graduation rate bottomed out at 7 percent, just before Cheryl Hyman arrived in 2010 as chancellor.

Since then the colleges have made progress, with an anticipated graduation rate of 12 percent this year.

Most of City Colleges’ 120,000 students enroll with academic deficiencies. About 87 percent place into a remedial course in at least one subject area. And half have remedial needs in all three areas of reading, English and math. But college officials said they think some students in remedial tracks have the right tools to make it through credit-bearing courses.

The system uses COMPASS and has no plans to drop the test, said Rasmus Lynnerup, vice chancellor for strategy and institutional intelligence for City Colleges. Rather, he said college officials are studying how to also use SuccessNavigator to identify remedial students “on the cusp” who might be candidates for acceleration through developmental tracks or who could skip a final level of remediation.

The research trial with ETS has shown promising results, Lynnerup said. The test "allows us to have a personal relationship with students” as soon as they arrive. And it adds a new approach and a range of information that the colleges currently do not collect. “We don’t do it at all yet,” he said.

City Colleges are currently mulling the test for systemwide adoption.

One institution is already using it, but in a different way.

Santa Monica College last fall began administering the test to students in its popular student success course, which is called Counseling 20. The California community college filled more than 100 sections of the course last fall, each one enrolling 35 or so students, said Brenda Benson, Santa Monica’s dean of counseling and retention.

Instructors received classroom-level reports after students took the test. While not providing results for individual students, Benson said instructors were able to see how the class stacked up on about 15 measures, like social supports or time management skills. They could then tailor their instruction based on each group of students' overall needs.

Faculty “found it really useful,” Benson said, adding that “students seem to love it.”

She said Santa Monica is thinking about how it might use the assessment tool for individual students or as a guide for student advising.

Many research questions remain about how grit influences student performance, said Sara Goldrick-Rab, an associate professor of education policy at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. But she said nonacademic factors appear to be important in completion. So testing for them probably makes sense.

“It can’t hurt,” she said.

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