The Problem with College Placement Exams

Many, if not most, students headed to college will be required to take one or more placement exams at their school.  For many students, this may come as a surprise.  As a college parent, you can help your student anticipate, understand, and cope with these important tests.

What are placement exams?

Placement exams or tests are given to students, usually after they have been accepted to the college, to determine how ready students are for college level work in basic core courses.  They are most often given in subjects such as English and math.  Students cannot ”pass” or ”fail” placement tests since they simply measure a level or readiness in a subject.  They are used for placing the student in the appropriate level class.

It is important that students understand that the results of their placement exams are important, but cannot affect their acceptance to the college; they are not linked to admission.  Students are accepted to college based on their potential, but the college still needs to determine what they actually know and how well they know what they know. Placement exams determine the starting point of their education. They do not measure intelligence or ability, but the student’s academic experience. Students whose tests indicate deficiencies may be required to take a class to ”come up to speed” in that subject area.  Some studies indicate that as many as 40 – 50% of students may need at least one developmental or remedial class.

The problem with placement exams

The problem is not so much with college placement exams, as with students’ understanding of and preparation for these exams.

  • Many high school students do not know that they will be expected to take placement exams.  They encounter these tests for the first time when they arrive at college, often see them as an isolated event, and have minimal information regarding the tests.
  • Students often do not understand the purpose of tests.  They do not understand the rationale behind the tests and that the results may determine the courses that they take.  Information may be available on college websites or brochures, but students often do not read that information.
  • Students’ perceptions of the tests may not be accurate. Students may either fear that their acceptance will be affected or that the tests do not matter at all.
  • Students may be unfamiliar with expectations of the tests, the topics, and/or the format.  They are unprepared to take them.
  • Although they are not linked to admission, students may not understand the high stakes nature of these tests.  Results may determine whether students are placed in credit or non credit bearing courses, placed in developmental courses, or whether placement will affect the cost of earning a degree.

What can be done?

As a college parent, you can talk to your student about placement exams — as early as possible.  The more that your student understands about these upcoming tests, the better prepared that they will be.

  • Help your student understand the purpose, format, procedures, range of content and methods of preparation for the placement exams at their school.
  • Help your student understand that they can prepare for exams.  Unlike SAT or ACT exams, placement exams are not necessarily meant to capture what a student knows at a given moment without preparation.  Many college websites have practice questions available.  Your student can review high school material — particularly if they haven’t taken a subject recently.
  • Help your student understand that high school graduation alone may not be enough preparation for college.  Encourage your student to go beyond the minimum high school requirements, especially in core subjects.
  • Encourage your student to do their best work on these tests so that the results are as accurate as possible.
  • Encourage your student to take these tests seriously.
  • Encourage your student to deal with any academic shortcomings as early in high school as possible.  Don’t let them ignore deficiencies.
  • Encourage your student not to slack off during senior year, but to continue to take challenging courses.
  • Help your student investigate whether course placement is based solely on the results of exams, or whether placement tests are only one measure that is used to determine the appropriate level.  (The college may include high school coursework, high school grades and/or GPA, or other factors.)
  • Help your student investigate whether results will be explained and/or interpreted for them by a college counselor or advisor.
  • Help your student investigate whether results may be challenged if they feel they are not accurate.
  • Help your student investigate whether course placement is mandatory or whether the results of placement exams determine a recommendation only.

College placement exams serve an important and necessary purpose for incoming students.  They help to determine proper class placement so that your student can be appropriately challenged and successful.  No student wants to be in a course that they don’t need, or in a course that is beyond their ability.  Many students, however, say that they wish they had known earlier about placement exams and their purpose.  They say they may have done some things differently in high school had they known.  Some educators have even suggested that diagnostic testing might begin earlier in high school so that students can address weaknesses earlier.

You can help your future college student understand as early as possible about the existence and purpose of placement exams.  Encourage them to prepare, and to keep them in perspective.  You can help your student understand that appropriate placement, even if it is not what they expected, is what will help them ultimately be successful in college.

For an additional explanation about placement tests, see the explanation and personal story by Elizabeth Stapel on her mathematics site, Purplemath, ”So you need to take a placement test…”

Related Posts:

Why is My Student in Developmental Classes?

Using Senior Year to Prepare Your Student for College Success

Is Your College Student Academically At-Risk?

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