Academic journal article Research & Teaching in Developmental Education

A "Reform" Placement Test

Academic journal article Research & Teaching in Developmental Education

A "Reform" Placement Test

Article excerpt


In the past ten years much attention has been focused on reforming the secondary mathematics curriculum. If these reform efforts have had an impact on student learning then incoming college freshmen will be differently prepared for collegiate mathematics than students of the past. This article examines the process for placing incoming freshmen into the appropriate collegiate mathematics course. The authors provide an alternative to the traditional mathematics placement test used at many universities and give results of the initial validation and reliability process, which suggest that the reform placement test might be a workable alternative.

Key words include:

Placement, mathematics education, post-secondary education, and remedial education.

Placement of incoming freshmen into their first collegiate mathematics course has been, and continues to be, problematic. Neither practice nor research has revealed an accurate and efficient manner by which to place students. It is estimated that ninety percent of postsecondary institutions have placement tests (Sawyer, 1996). Accurate placement benefits students, faculty, and institutional resources. Benefits for professors include making the courses easier to teach, and benefits for students include a reduced frustration level (Noble and Sawyer, 1995). Students who have success in their first mathematics course are more likely to take more mathematics courses than those students who must retake their first course (Steen, 1992). Institutional benefits include conserving resources by having students not repeat courses. Clearly, accurate placement is an important issue for all stakeholders - yet it remains a quandary. This problem has existed for many years in spite of the fact that mathematics in secondary schools has been taught in a fashion that closely resembled the instructional practices of collegiate mathematics courses.

Many studies show that placement test scores are not strongly related to the letter grade received in the first mathematics course and that other measures may do a better job of placing students than placement tests (Armstrong, 1995, 2000; Latterell and Regal, 2003; Lewallen, 1994). Some studies show that when placement is not mandated, many students do not follow the placement recommendations (Latterell and Regal, 2003; Jue, 1993). Numerous studies show that if students do take the course recommended, they perform better than when they take the course beyond what is recommended (Callahan, 1993; Isonio, 1992; Marshall and Alien, 2000; Mercer, 1995; Sturtz and McCarroll, 1993), and, so, departments keep trying to accurately place students.

Before continuing this discussion, we will attempt to be more specific about what we see as the growing disconnect between what is learned in the K-12 mathematics curricula and traditional placement testing. A brief discussion of what we mean by NCTM-oriented curricula might be helpful at this point. Reform oriented curricula refer specifically to the thirteen reform curriculum programs whose development was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the 1990's. NCTM-sympathetic curricula is the term we will use to refer to the other kindergarten through twelfth grade mathematics curricula, not developed under NSF funding, that have more elements of the NCTM standards incorporated in them than earlier mathematics curriculum materials. The presence of NCTM-oriented curricula and NCTM-sympathetic curricula is increasing in K-12 mathematics classes. We will use the term "reform" in this paper to refer to the collective curricula, NCTM-oriented and NCTM-sympathetic.

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM, 1989, 1991, 1995 2000) has put forth principles and standards that call for radical shifts from the mathematics curricula and pedagogy taught before the 1990s. As more and more ÊÉ 2 schools begin to orient themselves with the principles and standards of the NCTM, it becomes a greater concern that "old" placement tests may be even less accurate in helping students find the appropriate collegiate mathematics course (Marshall and Alien, 2000). …

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