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College Placement Tests and Remedial Courses

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When I decided to take graphic design classes last summer, I had to sit in the library and take a computerized placement test to determine whether or not I was “at the college level" and could handle college level work.

At the time, I found it slightly offensive, considering that I already had a bachelor’s degree, but college entrance exams are actually a pretty standard procedure at most schools. They are used to compare a student’s ability for college-level work with other students that have also taken the exam—similar to the SAT and ACT.

Two College Placement Tests: Accuplacer and COMPASS

It’s important to remember that students cannot pass or fail placement tests: they’re used to measure academic skills. Even so, it’s important that you try to do your very best so that your score will be an accurate measure of your academic skills.

The test that I took before I was allowed to register for classes was called the Accuplacer. The Accuplacer was created by the College Board, the company that administers the SAT, and it is used to measure students’ skills in math, English, and reading. The Accuplacer is an adaptive test, which means that questions are chosen based upon your answers to the previous questions. This technique selects just the right questions for your ability level, but because the test works this way, you have to answer every question when it is first given. You cannot skip a question and go back and answer it later or change your answer once you submit it. A score report will be available as soon as you complete the test, and your school will use the results to determine which classes will suit you best.

Another college placement test commonly used by schools across the country is COMPASS, a computerized test created by ACT, Inc., the company that administers the ACT. Similar to the Accuplacer, COMPASS does not provide a passing or failing score; rather, it determines subject areas in which students are strong and those in which they may need help.

If you’d like to know what you’re going to be up against before taking a college placement test, sample questions for both the Accuplacer and COMPASS are available online.

Remedial College Courses

If a student’s Accuplacer or COMPASS results show that they are not up to par in certain subject areas, they’ll probably be required to take a remedial course in that subject. Remedial courses, or developmental courses as they are sometimes called, are used to play catch up. They are not considered college-level work, which means that they do not provide college credit even though students must pay tuition in order to take them.

The need to take remedial college courses is far from unusual, so if you find out that you have to take one, you’re not alone.

According to Patrick O’Connor, a college-counseling consultant in Michigan, college placement tests "determine the best place for students to begin in English and math classes so that they achieve academic success in college,” and the College Board reports that as many as 40 percent of students will need to take at least one remedial class during their time in college.

A 2006 report by the National Center for Education Statistics found that more than over thirty percent of first-and second-year undergraduate students reported taking a remedial course in at least one subject during the 2003-04 academic year, so it appears that the College Board’s estimate is fairly accurate.

A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article reports that critics of remedial courses feel the classes “drain money, time and hope from those ill-suited for college.” High schools, meanwhile, are blamed for not preparing students for post-secondary work.

Properly Prepare Yourself for College

If you’d like to ensure that you are properly prepared to take college courses when the time arrives, the College Board offers some great advice:

  • Be aware that simply meeting graduation requirements might not be enough to prepare you for the rigors of college.
  • Take as many classes in the core subjects (English, math, writing, and science) as you can.
  • Seek out help if you need it.
  • Critically evaluate anything that could affect your studies: sports, after-school activities, hobbies, social events, and part-time jobs.
  • Deal with shortcomings as soon as possible.
  • Don’t slack off during your senior year.
  • Take advantage of any free college-preparatory course work that your high school offers.

Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.

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