Tuesday, June 9, 2009

3 Ideas to Prepare Students for College Placement Exams

My seniors are just a week or so away from graduation, and everyone else is close to the end of the school year, so I decided one productive way to end the year with my Algebra II classes is to practice for college placement exams.

We spend a lot of time discussing college admission requirements and other details of the experience at my school, but I feel like we don't talk enough about these crucial exams.

I remember my experience, crowded into an auditorium with thousands of fellow incoming freshmen. We took a math exam, produced a writing sample, and some of us took a challenging Spanish placement test that I totally flunked (after doing really well in high school). In short, this was a stressful set of exams, to say nothing of their importance.

I introduced this to my students as something really important to prepare for one reason above all else: At many schools, if you flunk the math placement exam, you have to take a remedial course that is often not for credit in order to even take the standard college level math course that you need for core graduation requirements. I've known people in this situation, and it's not fun. Unfortunately, some of my students think they can flunk on purpose in order to be placed in the "easy" math course, but that's just not the case.

Here's three ideas I'm using with my students this week:
  1. Sample ACCUPLACER Questions [PDF from The College Board] - On Monday we worked on the three-part math section that's included here (this document contains samples from all of the tested subjects as well). Students used calculators and checked their answers themselves after finishing, but were warned to consider two things: Would you be able to do these problems without a calculator (if they weren't allowed)? What do you need to work on between now and the time you'll take this exam to do well? It took my students about 40-50 minutes to complete the 30 included questions.
  2. Practice Math Placement Tests from UMass Boston - Today, students will be going online to take one of the practice tests provided by UMass Boston, one of our many local universities. There's multiple levels here depending on what courses students have taken, which we will discuss along with how placement works at this school as well. This should take the majority of our 70 minute period, as the tests are between 30-40 questions. In this case, students are shown their answers and can seek out explanations as soon as they're done with the test, even if they don't complete it. In your classroom, use similar resources from local universities to get your students engaged (look on any schools' admissions site, or go directly to the math department's site).
  3. Finally, I would like students to practice taking a computer-adaptive test, which is a test that changes based on your answers (getting harder when you answer correctly and easier when you are incorrect). The ACCUPLACER, GRE and other exams are CAT as well. My research for a simple example that my students could actually take, even if it wasn't tied directly to our content, was fruitless. I did come up with one fun possibility: FreeRice, the game created by the UN to help fight world hunger. As I've written about previously, the highly addictive vocabulary game adjusts its difficulty based on your answers.
Do you know of any free, easily accessible computer-adaptive tests to get my students familiar with the concept? Am I going about this all wrong? I'm open to your ideas and guidance as this is my first group of college-bound juniors and seniors, and I want them to be successful. I'm looking forward to what you share in the comments below! Thank you.