Assessing our current process of math (mis)placement

Nobody likes placement tests.  For incoming students, they revive the specter of being evaluated on material they have already forgotten.  For our Summer Connections staff, they become the perpetual reason that students don’t complete the registration process properly.  And for faculty, placement tests seem to miss a growing proportion of students that quickly appear in over their head in class even though the tests “placed” those students in it.

Over the last few weeks, based on questions asked by the math faculty and some very thoughtful conversations and suggestions on their part, we have been taking a hard look at our math placement process.  We compared it with alternative methods of placement and tracked students over each of the last four years to see how they did in the math courses they took.  We’ve found all kinds of interesting tidbits that have spurred some important solutions that I think will help our students in the years to come.  But one piece of data stood out to me that I wanted to share concerning (a) the difference between our incoming students’ perception of college and the way that we would like them to engage it, and (b) the ramifications of that difference.

Before launching into this post, however, I have to give a massive shout out to Kimberly Dyer, the backbone of my office, for her work on this project.  She has done all of the data organizing and analysis.  If I’m being honest, this week I’m just riding the coat tails of greatness.

Although our current math placement protocol is set up to place students across a range of math courses, a large proportion of students end up placing into either pre-calculus or calculus I.  Students with a math placement score of 20 or below are assigned to pre-calculus and students with a 25 or above are assigned to calculus I or higher.  But for the students who score between 21-24, we tell them to consult with advisers and others to determine which math course – pre-calculus or calculus I – is the best fit for them.

All else being equal, I think it’s safe to say that on average we would expect students who earn a 21 or a 22 to enroll more often in pre-calculus and students who earn a 23 or 24 would enroll more often in calculus I.  Unfortunately . . . .

Math Placement Score

Enrolled in Pre-Calculus

Enrolled in Calculus I













As you can see in the table above, for all of the placement scores in this ‘tweener group, more students chose to enroll in calculus I than in pre-calculus.  Yet, maybe it’s not a problem because all of these students are able to handle calculus I.  The table below shows the subsequent grades for students at each placement score who chose to take calculus instead of pre-calculus.

Math Placement Score

Earned a B- or better

Earned a D, F, or withdrew













Apparently, students who earn scores that would cause most of us to think twice before registering for calculus I are more often taking calculus I anyway.  And the failure rates lay out in pretty stark terms the consequences of that decision.  Clearly, there must be other issues at play that would convince an incoming freshman to choose the more advanced math course when their placement score suggests some caution in considering the more advanced course.

The folks who help with registration at Summer Connection often describe the pressures that students and their parents bring to this issue.  Many students are worried about graduating in four years and therefore want to take the highest level of courses they can take.  Others think that because they took pre-calculus in high school, they should automatically take calculus I – regardless of their assessed degree of preparation as measured by the placement test.  Moreover, some may not want to face that fact that although they may have passed pre-calculus in high school, they didn’t learn as much as they would like to think.

In my mind, this disconnect exemplifies the degree to which incoming students and families don’t grasp the difference between going to college to acquire content knowledge and going to college to develop skills and dispositions.  In their mind, content acquisition is isolated to a given course.  Content learned or not learned in one course is not likely to affect the ability to learn content in another course.  However, we know that content is continually changing, and in today’s world it is practically ubiquitous.  While it is necessary, it is not sufficient, and is only a part of our ultimate educational goal.  For us, content is the mechanism by, or the context within which, we develop skills and dispositions.  Then the content helps us re-situate those skills and dispositions in settings akin to the environments in which students will be expected to excel after college.

This misunderstanding of the point of college – and more specifically the educational outcomes we intend for students who attend Augustana – has major implications for students.  For these kids who perceive college to be about content acquisition, they see it as a sort of intellectual pie eating contest, where it makes complete sense to bite off more than you can chew to get what you can and gobble your way to the finish line regardless of whether or not you happen to throw up along the way or stir up an indigestional nightmare at the end.  On the contrary, if students understand that college is about developing skills and dispositions, I think that they might be more likely to appreciate the chance to start at the beginning that is appropriate for them, savoring each experience like a slow cooked, seven course meal because they know that the culmination of college is made exponentially better by the particular ordering and integrating of the flavors that have come before.

Although we definitely need to emphasize this message from the moment of students’ first interaction with Augustana, convincing students AND their parents to understand and embrace this conceptual turn is not the sole responsibility of admissions or Summer Connections or even LSFY.  For students to grasp the implications of this shift, they need to hear it from all of us repeatedly.  Otherwise, there are too many external pressures that will influence students to engage in academic behaviors that will ultimately harm their development.  We may well need to eliminate the ‘tweener category of math placement scores, but this is not the only situation where that monster raises its ugly head.  However, if we are vigilant, I think we will help many more students deliberately and intentionally suck the marrow out of their four years at Augustana instead of treating like an eating contest.

Make it a good day,




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