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So You Need to Take a Placement Test....

Many times, students (or soon-to-be students) have asked me what they need to do in order to study for an upcoming placement test, because they want to "pass". But this question misses the point.

The purpose of a placement test is to determine how much you know and how well you know it. There is no "passing" or "failing" on a placement test. A placement test serves only to "place" you in one math class or another. It does not attempt to judge how "smart" or "dumb" you are; it does not attempt to say how much you can accomplish in the future; it only judges, based on the experience of those writing the test, which math class would best serve your educational needs right now.

The placement test does not try to "grade" your knowledge; instead, it tries to determine what your current knowledge is. Maybe it's been twenty years since you graduated high school. Maybe you're fine with fractions and percentages, but have forgotten "that stuff with the variables". Ideally, the placement test will measure your current skill set, determine that you do not need any remedial classes, and will place you in a pre-algebra or beginning algebra class. Or maybe you just graduated high school last fall. Maybe you aced your AP Calculus course, and still remember all of it. Then the placement test will measure this, determine that you do not need algebra or pre-calculus, and will place you somewhere in the calculus series.   Copyright © Elizabeth Stapel 2002-2011 All Rights Reserved

There is no "passing" or "failing" with a placement test; there is only "placing".

By way of illustration, I was wondering some years ago on what level my homeschooled son was reading. I found a web site that had a reading test which was composed of a long list of groups of words. The instructions said that the child being tested was to read through the groups of words until he finally hadn't been able to read a certain number of words. From this stopping point, the current reading level could be determined. The point of that test had not been to "pass" or to "fail" a young reader or to criticise his abilities or potential, but to measure (to "place") his current reading abilities. When my son ground to a halt midway down the table, he had not "failed" the test; quite to the contrary, he had done quite well for his age; but the real point of the test was that I then knew on what level he could read. Some "score" was not the point; the measurement was point.




In the same way, a placement test measures neither intelligence nor ability but experience. And there is no shame in lacking experience — but there can be real harm in pretending experience that you don't actually have. If you try to "cram" for a placement test and somehow manage (through lucky guesses on the multiple-choice questions, for instance) to "fool" the test into "scoring" you well, this could result in your being placed in a math class for which you are not properly prepared. And from sad experience I can tell you that this means that you will very likely flunk your first math class, probably many times over, because you will have entered the course lacking the necessary mathematical background to understand the material.

I took a placement test when I went back to college. It had been a few years since high school, and my education hadn't exactly been stellar, so I figured that I would need to start my renewed studies in some lower-level math course. I read the descriptions of the various courses in the catalog. Some of the courses described stuff that I knew how to do (so I could probably skip past those courses), and some other courses' descriptions used words I didn't even recognize (so I probably wasn't ready for them). But there was one course in the middle where I remembered some of the stuff from high school and didn't know the rest of the stuff. I figured that this class was probably where I would need to start.

When I took the placement test, it came in two parts: a calculus part and a non-calculus part. I didn't even attempt to answer the questions on the calculus portion. I did the best I could on the other part, based on the experience I had and the material I could remember. And the placement test put me right in the class I'd expected to start in. For the first half of that course, I was bored to tears. Then, about halfway through, the instructor reached material I'd never seen before, and the class started getting interesting.

In a way, you could say that I'd flunked the placement test, because I couldn't even attempt the calculus half of it. But I'd passed the placement process with flying colors, because I'd honestly provided the information that the test needed in order to place me properly in the best course for my abilities at that point in time. Where did I start? In Intermediate Algebra, way before calculus — but just where I'd expected I'd probably need to begin. And here I am, writing a math site, so "flunking" certainly didn't mean I was "stupid".

You do not want to get locked into a course that is too advanced for you, and end up banging your head against a wall, failing the same course over and over and over again. You want to start in the course that is right for you. So don't try to "cram" or study for the placement test; don't try to fool the test or to "pass" it. If you want to do a little review to brush up on what you already know, that's great. But the best thing you can do is just relax, do your best, and let the placement test do its job.

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Cite this article as:

Stapel, Elizabeth. "So You Need to Take a Placement Test." Purplemath. Available from Accessed



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