Accuplacer Exam Targeted

The Accuplacer exam, used by colleges and universities all over the country to help determine whether incoming students should take developmental courses, received harsh criticism in a recent article by Emily Hanford, in Washington Monthly, an influential publication. Please read the entire piece, especially if you are in the DE field.

Criticism of standardized exams is a topic covered widely, including here. But the article makes a couple of observations that are noteworthy. For one, Ms. Hanford decided to take the exam herself:

And what about people who already have college degrees? I graduated from college more than two decades ago. I wondered how I would do. So last year, I arranged to take the Accuplacer at a community college. I went in cold, with no prep, like most students. I did fine on the English—a relief, since writing is what I do for a living. But some of the questions were tricky, and with no prep, I wasn’t quite sure what I was being asked to do. On the math, I tested into remediation. (You can try some sample questions here.) At that point, if I were really going back to school, I would have asked if I could brush up on my algebra and re-take the Accuplacer.

Just a guess, but it’s likely that many college faculty members who don’t teach in math or science fields—even those with advanced degrees—would be placed in math remediation, at least initially. This doesn’t prove much, except that it’s been a long time since we worked on equations and such. But it’s symptomatic of what drives people crazy about placement decisions that rely heavily upon one exam. Here is how  the Texas Success Initiative works, which displays more complexity in the placement process. But the exam is still very important for many students.

Here is another interesting observation by Ms. Hanford:

A wide body of research shows that test scores reflect family income more than any other factor. [Peter Adams, who taught developmental writing at a community college for 36 years] once heard an official from a testing company say that instead of giving incoming students a placement test, colleges could just ask how many bathrooms in the house where they grew up. The fewer bathrooms, the worse they’re likely to do on the test. And the more likely they’ll end up in remedial classes.

We might add that we could probably ask incoming students the educational level of their parents as a surrogate variable predicting success as well. But asking about bathrooms and parental education is problematic, to say the least. One could argue that it’s really none of our business. And it’s hard to imagine telling students they need remedial math, based on the bathroom factor. The key variable is income, of course.

Math teachers often say they can tell within a few minutes whether a student needs remediation, by working with them individually or in small groups. English teachers can read a brief essay written by students and probably do the same. However, in our data-driven educational universe, such decisions must be objectified and standardized before they are taken seriously by policy makers.