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College placement exam comes under new scrutiny

Critics say Accuplacer forces many into remedial classes at state schools

One three-hour exam decides the fate of many Massachusetts college students. It isn’t the much-feared SAT exam, but it’s proving to be nearly as controversial.

Called the Accuplacer, the test is taken by many of the 35,000 students who enter public colleges and universities each year — and critics are questioning whether it is, in fact, what its name suggests: an accurate way to place students into the proper college courses.

Each year, the test sends one in three Massachusetts public school graduates into remedial classes, primarily in math, at the state’s public colleges. Experts here and beyond are divided on the reason: whether the high schoolers are simply unprepared for college, or whether the test is deeply flawed and should be scrapped.

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“It’s hard to predict who is going to do well in college-level courses on the basis of these one-off, relatively short exams,” said Judith Scott-Clayton, an assistant professor in economics and education at Columbia University.

State education officials acknowledge that too many graduates leave high school unprepared for the rigors of college course work. At the same time, it appears the test is routing some overqualified students into remedial classes.

All this matters because the stakes are high. First-year college students in Massachusetts and many other states take the Accuplacer test before they register for their first courses. Many students who test into remedial classes never pass them and rarely go on to earn a degree. Students have to pay for the remedial courses, but they don’t count for credit.

“There’s no question that we have many students who are making it through high school without the kind of preparation that will allow them to be successful” in college, said Mitchell Chester, the state’s commissioner of secondary education, who said Accuplacer is a small part of the problem.

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The number of remedial students varies across the state. For example, 72 percent of high schoolers from Springfield who enrolled in public colleges tested into remedial classes, according to the most recent state data, from 2012. In Newton, 14.3 percent did.

Experts who study Accuplacer say many students who test into remedial courses are capable of college-level work, and the assessment disregards what students know.

Jasmine Almeida, 21, recently found herself in that situation. The New Bedford native is preparing to start classes at Bunker Hill Community College this fall and took the Accuplacer this month. Almeida said she had no idea the test would determine whether she had to take remedial classes, but now must take two in math. She said she was nervous about the math because she finished high school four years ago. She looked briefly over a study guide the college provided.

“I kind of looked at the questions, and I was like, ‘I know this, but I don’t know how to do it,’ ” she said. She guessed a lot.

Almeida doesn’t mind paying for the remedial courses, she said, so she will be more confident in a credit-bearing course later.

The predicament can be demoralizing, especially for many first-generation college students, and can leave them saddled with loan debt and few job prospects.

The state is experimenting with new ways of placing students, such as using high school GPAs to decide where students belong.

Accuplacer, which the state adopted in 1998, is a multiple-choice computerized test that is adaptive, meaning questions get harder or easier depending on a student’s answers.

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It tests reading, writing, and math, including algebra, fractions, and decimals. Students can bypass the test if they have taken a college-level class, such as an Advanced Placement course.

Few University of Massachusetts students enroll in remedial courses, but remediation is widespread at community colleges and state universities.

The College Board, which created the Accuplacer test in 1986, acknowledges concerns about its usefulness and “is working with our members to improve diagnostic tools as well as models of support.” ACT, which administers a similar test, announced in June that it would discontinue its test in 2016 because of a decline in use and concerns about its efficacy.

State statistics suggest there is a long way to go. In 36 school districts and/or individual schools, more than half of all students test into college remedial classes. The statewide rate has stayed virtually flat for the past five years.

Besides Springfield, the Lawrence, Worcester, and Pittsfield districts have the highest rates of graduates who test into remedial college classes.

Many specialists insist Accuplacer is not the problem.

Gary Kaplan, who runs the Boston nonprofit JFYNetWorks, which gives students extra help in math, says those who prepare for the test can eliminate half of the remedial classes they otherwise would have faced. The issue, as he see it, stems from a fundamental disconnect in the state’s education system. “Higher ed and K-12 have not been communicating very well,” Kaplan said.

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In Lawrence, where 63 percent of students test into remedial courses, high schools have started a program called Math Plus to prep for Accuplacer.

Many districts administer practice Accuplacer tests in high school, with success. In Pittsfield, the rate of students testing into remediation fell from 56 percent to 43 percent during the most recent five years of data.

Boston, where 34 percent of students end up in college remedial classes — though many individual schools have much higher rates — has also started prepping students for the test and intensifying math programs, said Marsha Inniss-Mitchell, director of postsecondary partnerships and initiatives.


Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com.