Course Placement

College placement image

PSCCN is partnering with local colleges, school districts and community organizations to encourage more use of high school transcripts to increase student success at community and technical colleges.

Postsecondary credentials can unlock the door to living wage jobs, but too few students enroll. Some kind of postsecondary credential is increasingly necessary to secure a living-wage job. Students in the Road Map region (South King County) understand this fact. A recent survey of over 7,000 students in the region finds that 96% want to obtain at least some college. Despite these aspirations, only 59% of Road Map graduates enroll directly in college; these enrollment rates have been relatively flat since 2010.

Many students who enroll in college are required to take pre-college courses, which slows progress towards degree completion and is costly. According to the High School Feedback Report, 42% of Road Map high school graduates that enroll directly in CTCs take one or more pre-college course. Students required to take pre-college courses are less likely to complete or transfer than students who do not need these courses.

The placement process matters. The most common method by which students are placed into college courses is through placement exams. Research has found these assessments are poor predictors of future college success and that students typically know little about the exams or how their results will be used. Estimates suggest that the rate of “misplacement” into pre-college courses could be as high as 34% in the Road Map region.

High school transcripts can enable more accurate placement. National research has demonstrated that high school grades are better predictors of college success than placement tests. The Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC) has an “automatic placement agreement” designed to ensure that students who score well on Smarter Balanced assessments avoid pre-college courses. In addition, local CTCs have “placement grids” that specify grades in specific high school courses that should ensure students avoid pre-college courses. Highline College has been working to improve its assessment and placement process through a wide range of strategies including the use of high school transcripts. These changes have led to dramatic improvements. As summarized in Figure 3, 63% of 2017 entering students placed “college ready” in math compared to only 17% in 2014.

Students face barriers to using their high school transcripts for placement. CTCs do not track or publicly report the proportion of entering students who use high school transcripts for placement purposes. Anecdotal evidence suggests students face numerous barriers to using high school transcripts for placement including lack of knowledge that transcript-based placement is an option, difficulty accessing transcripts via online platforms (e.g., Skyward) after high school graduation and fees associated with transcript requests.

K–12 leaders must play a stronger role ensuring that students take advantage of transcript based placement options and avoid pre-college courses. Leaders can:

  • Ensure students understand that they can use SBA scores and high school grades to avoid pre-college courses at local CTCs (e.g., integrate information into senior advisory or senior-level courses, provide each student with a transcript upon graduation, etc. ).
  • Ensure students have easy access to high school transcripts after graduation (e.g., clear point people at district level, access throughout summer months, low barrier request process, quick turnaround, etc.).
  • Ask local CTCs to provide information on how many of their graduates use transcripts for placement and how many enroll in pre-college courses

PSCCN will continue to work with leaders in the region to support more use of transcript based placement in local community and technical colleges. For more information or support, contact

1 Survey of students enrolled in high schools participating in the College and Career Leadership Institute. Study is forthcoming.
2 See, for example, Where to Begin (Burdman 2012).
3 ERDC High School Feedback Report Data Dashboard. Misplacement rate is estimated using percent of direct enrollees with a GPA of 3.0 or higher who take any pre-college course at a 2-year college. Accessed on March 19, 2019.
4 See, for example, Predicting Success in College (Belfield and Crosta 2012).