2009-08-28 / Columnists

Ken's Math Korner

Commentary By Ken Rochelle, MBA

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 their 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 taking the test, which math class would serve your educational needs the best.

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

By way of illustration, I was wondering at one point on what level one of my students was reading. I found a web site that had a reading test which was composed of a long list of groups of words. The child being tested was to read through the groups of words until he finally wasn't 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 criticize his abilities or potential, but to measure (to "place") his current reading levels. When my student grounded 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 the 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.

Here are some suggestions on doing your best:

1. Get positive about taking tests!

A positive attitude can boost confidence and improve test performance. Researchers have found that test performance is, in part, psychological. When someone receives positive messages about his ability to learn and to succeed academically, he will perform significantly better on tests.

2. Clear the brain for learning and testing!

Take an hour or two to clear your heads of life's stresses, away from family, away from the job: time to think about the challenges associated with the upcoming test. A student who arrives late for a test, huffing and puffing, upset about a family- or job-related problem is not emotionally ready for the challenges of a test. If failure follows, the test is often blamed, but the real problem might be that the student was not psychologically ready to perform to his capabilities. If prior test-taking experience resulted in failure, the student should strive to put that behind him and focus on the present test and his efforts to perform well on it.

3. Prepare for the test "strategically!"

There are two key strategies for preparing to take a placement test.

The first strategy is to become familiar with the format of the test:

What sorts of questions are asked, how is information conveyed, and how are answers logged in? This knowledge will reduce the level of surprise and confusion that robs the test taker of time he or she could be using to answer questions. The second strategy is to research the content coverage of a test and then to apply the study time the learner has available on the content that will count the most. 4. Take a practice test — or even better, take several practice tests!

No one learns to fly a plane, drive a car, swim, or play golf just by reading how-to books. Practice makes perfect, as the saying goes, and testing is no exception. There are lots of practice tests available; in fact, bookstores are full of books containing practice tests for most national standardized tests.

5. Read, read, read!

Studies have shown that vocabulary is one of the most important factors in doing well on standardized tests. Every time a test taker encounters a word he or she doesn't know, he or she is less likely to understand a reading passage or a question. It sounds overly simple, but the fact is that vocabulary development is critical to success in all subject areas. The best way to build vocabulary is by reading, reading, and then more reading.

ALGEBRA QUESTION: What is the sum of all the positive integer factors of 12?

SAT QUESTION: One gallon of fuel mixture contains antifreeze in the ratio of 5 parts fuel to one part antifreeze. To this is added half a gallon of mixture which is one third antifreeze and two thirds fuel. What is the ratio of fuel to antifreeze in the final mixture? (Grid your answer as a fraction: fuel/antifreeze) For the answers and solutions please visit my web site kenthetutor.org. You may also email me at kenrochelle@ gmail.com.

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