Accuplacer and College Developmental Courses

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In our state we also find that the low academic skill level of GED diploma recipients is, if not the biggest barrier to post-secondary education, at least a very major one. A huge majority of GED students end up in college developmental courses from which they never emerge. The un-indicted co-conspirator in all this is the ACCUPLACER, the placement test that all applicants to Massachusetts state colleges must take. Our data shows that while GED grads do very well on the reading part of the ACCUPLACER and quite well on the Writing in terms of avoiding developmental courses, on the Math they do very, very poorly. There is no correlation between GED math and ACCUPLACER/college Algebra: a person can get an 800 on the GED math test and still test into developmental math at a community college. I am working with GED math teachers around Massachusetts to develop a GED curriculum that will allow students to pass the GED test with all due speed and also pass the ACCUPLACER math test.

Tom Mechem
GED State Chief Examiner
Department of Elementary & Secondary Education
Commonwealth of Massachusetts

Tom is, as usual, correct. My concern is that some students could and should be able to gain a certificate or, perhaps, even an Associate's without a knowledge of algebra.

I have a Ph D and slogged through three grad course in statistics. However, if you put a gun to my head and ordered me to solve an equation with two unknowns I would tell you to shoot me.

I was a Tenured Full Professor at the University of Nebraska as well, and managed world-wide customer research for IBM without knowing how to solve that sort of equation.

Perhaps, the problem is with the curriculum and not the learners.

Roger Berg
Plymouth, MA

Writing from Bunker Hill Community College Boston one of the 5 colleges profiled in Torchlights in ESL; I can confirm that the majority of GED and ESOL students place into developmental math. That said, 90% of all students who enroll in community colleges in Massachusetts place into at least one developmental course. And this is the trend nationwide.

From my experience there are a number of factors that play into developmental placement; one that Tom mentioned is the lack of alignment between the Massachusetts Adult Curriculum Frameworks and community college math or English curriculum - and between Adult Ed ESOL and community college ESOL curriculum also. It also should be noted a large number of high school graduates who pass the MCAS - Massachusetts state K-12 competency test also test into developmental classes, again lack of alignment between the secondary education and community college curriculum is a factor. Steps are being taken to address this issue.

Another factor is test taking skills. Students need to learn how to take a computerized test. The test taking strategies we learned about skipping the questions you know and then go back or review the questions after you have completed the test can't be done on a computerized test. Also many students do not take the time to read the directions carefully. You can't go back and correct on a computerized test.

Instead of thinking how to get students to pass Accuplacer, I would recommend the focus should be on what math and English academic skills that are required to place into college level classes and adapt the curriculum to address these deficiencies.

Toni Borge

I would just add to what Toni has said about test-taking skills a point about the differences between the GED test and the ACCUPLACER with regard to the penalties for getting a problem wrong. We know from the research that the most-missed questions on the GED test are Pythagorean Theorem problems. However, there is only one of these on the GED math test, maybe two (out of fifty questions). Miss the Pythagorean Theorem question, get a 760 or whatever on the Math test, and head off to MIT. But the ACCUPLACER is a computer-adaptive test. The ACCUPLACER algebra test (which you have to pass in order to avoid developmental courses) starts you off with a medium-difficulty question, but if you get it wrong, you sink to a lower level from which it is more difficult to get yourself back to an even keel. Every wrong answer drops you further into the abyss, and I believe that if you get three in a row wrong it shuts you down and tells you, "Don't call us, we'll call you." So the ACCUPLACER requires a completely different test-taking mindset.

Tom Mechem
GED State Chief Examiner
Department of Elementary & Secondary Education
Commonwealth of Massachusetts

Touche-just one more of the many maddening aspects of the Accuplacer.

Stephanie Moran

After reading what Tom wrote that "I believe that if you get three in a row wrong it shuts you down and tells you, "Don't call us, we'll call you." I asked my program's transitions advisor to check with our assessment director if it that is the case. He found out that Accuplacer doesn't stop with wrong answers. In the case of math, the test might stop after Arithmetic, at BHCC the placement rules have been set so if a student scores very low on Arithmetic, they will not get the Elementary Algebra test, but they will get the entire Arithmetic test."

So it will depend on how each assessment center sets up their placement protocol to determine if a student will get the Elementary Algebra test or not.

Toni Borge

Thanks for that clarification, Toni. The thing that worries me about that scenario is that there is evidence to show that strong arithmetic ability may not be a good predictor of strong algebra skills and that in fact it may hinder the development of algebra skills. From a teaching standpoint, this calls into question our traditional sequence of math instruction whereby arithmetic comes first and arithmetic skills are seen as a prerequisite for algebra, but it also makes it problematic as to whether students' performances on the ACCUPLACER Arithmetic test are good indications of where they should be placed vis-a-vis algebra. There are some community colleges in Massachusetts that start students on the Algebra ACCUPLACER test and only if they do poorly on that do they take the Arithmetic test, rather than vice versa.

Tom Mechem
GED State Chief Examiner
Department of Elementary & Secondary Education
Commonwealth of Massachusetts

"Instead of thinking how to get students to pass Accuplacer, I would recommend the focus should be on what math and English academic skills that are required to place into college level classes and adapt the curriculum to address these deficiencies."

While I agree with Toni to a degree, as long as the Accuplacer is the required assessment/entrance exam, I'll continue to change my teaching to fit it better (impossible as that test seems to be to "teach to"). As an example, the GED Language Arts, Writing texts do offer many sentence Construction Shift-type questions--which are also found on the Accuplacer-- so I am having my remedial Ss practice these-taken right out of my GED text.

Stephanie Moran

I would suggest that you try using the SAT review text instead of the GED. I would think it'll be more challenging.

Ranee Cervania

Our students don't need more challenging work-I do that in my regular teaching-they just need practice with the test format.

Stephanie Moran

Here are some Accuplacer practice tests your students can take to prepare for the Accuplacer. And for teachers who are not familiar with the Accuplacer, you can see what types of questions are asked and include them in your lesson plans.

These sites are from Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology. Another resource is to ask the assessment center of the community college in your area. Here at Bunker Hill CC, the assessment center provides web sites and students can go the website to practice before.

Accuplacer is a College Board test. You can check out the site for more information on it. [1]


Toni Borge

I think you're (Tom Mechem and Toni Borge) both right. Let's face it, GED math isn't college math. More importantly, most ESL programs have no systematic way of factoring math at any high level into their curricula - and that's 45% of all AE students. The GED problem can and should be easily as Tom suggests, and it's amazing that it hasn't been. That's the easy part. The ESL problem requires a complete rethinking of ESL program structure to create pathways to college tracks that include math along with college level English skills. Remember, that most colleges in most states don't require a GED for admission. But they do require a high enough level of math to pass the Compass or AccuPlacer. Hence, especially for ESL students, the GED may be optional, but teaching high levels of math to those who are college bound isn't. I consider this a major problem for the ESL field.

Forrest Chisman

I would like to respond to Tom's comment: "A huge majority of GED students end up in college developmental courses from which they never emerge."

At the Community College of Denver (CCD), we have a program called FastStart@CCD. (You can do a Google search for more info). Basically, it is our answer to this problem of students not emerging fast enough from developmental courses and losing their motivation to move on to college level courses.

The program combines two developmental courses, e.g., REA 060/ENG 060 (Intermediate) and REA 090 / ENG 090 (Advanced) in one semester. The intermediate level is completed during the first half of the semester and the advanced level during the second half. In other words, students are able to complete these four developmental classes in one semester, helping them move on to college level classes. We also offer math combinations - 030/060; 060/090 and 090/106.

During the first week of classes, if students realize this intensive program is not for them, the case manager transfers them to a regular-paced class. Students who don't pass the first half of the semester are not allowed to continue and have to wait for the next semester to complete their developmental classes, most likely, in regular-paced classes.

FastStart was piloted in the Fall of 2005. In the Fall of 2006, a section of reading/English combination was added. In the Spring of 2007, a new combination was added-REA 060 / REA 090 / ENG 090. Most of the students in this new combination are NNS (non-native speakers) of English.

The 4-subject Eng/Rea combination runs for 3 hours twice a week. The 3-subject combination runs for 2.5 hrs twice a week. The 2-subject math combination runs for 3 hrs twice a week.

For more information on this program, you can contact the coordinator, Lisa Silverstein at

The CCD College Connection program was modeled after FastStart.

Ranee Cervania
Curriculum Specialist
Ready for College - Colorado Success UNlimited (SUN)
Colorado Community College System

What makes a full day?

Kathy Ellithorpe

That will depend on how many credit hours the student wants to register for. Students usually choose one combination--either the reading/English or math. In other words, if they choose the reading/English FastStart combo, they choose a regular math class and vice-versa.

Ranee Cervania

Like Ranee Cervania, I am responding to Tom's comment: "A huge majority of GED students end up in college developmental courses from which they never emerge."

At the Community College Baltimore County, we have been concerned for some years about the low success rates for students placed in our developmental writing course. A study we conducted in 1993 showed that only 26% of students starting in our developmental writing course ever passed ENG 101. Resolving to improve this statistic, in 2007 we began offering a pilot alternative to developmental writing: the Accelerated Learning Project or ALP.

Students who are placed in developmental writing and who volunteer for ALP are allowed to register for designated sections of ENG 101. Each of these sections comprises 12 students placed in ENG 101 and 8 ALP students. The same 8 ALP students, during the following class period, meet with the same instructor in what we refer to as a companion course. Here they discuss what is happening in ENG 101, work on short writing assignments related to the longer papers they are writing in ENG 101, talk about ideas for papers, work on grammar problems, and work on revising their writing. In addition to these academic topics, in the companion course we also talk about problems they may be having outside of school and about successful behaviors in college.

In the first three semesters, we have offered 20 sections of ALP involving 160 students. The results have been spectacular. The success rate in ENG 101 for ALP students has consistently been greater than 56%. And we now have data on a handful of students (29) who passed ENG 101 and attempted the next course in the sequence, ENG 102. Of the original group of students who attempted ALP in 2007-8 (74 students), 26% (19) have passed ENG 102. For the corresponding group who took our traditional developmental writing course, only 10% have passed ENG 102. These latest data are very encouraging because they indicate that the positive effect of ALP may extend longer than just one semester.

We are studying the ALP program extensively: we plan to follow the students in the program for four years to see whether the positive effects follow them to degree completion and/or transfer. But we are also conducting extensive surveys and focus groups to determine exactly what it is about ALP that produces these results. That data won't be available for a couple of years, but preliminarily, we think at least some of the following are the major causes of the positive results:

Being allowed to take ENG 101 increases student confidence.
Being allowed to take ENG 101 reduces the negative attitude caused by not receiving credit for the developmental course.
Being integrated into college-level ENG 101 increases students' sense that they are part of the college.
Taking ENG 101 and the companion course in a cohort of 8 students and the same instructor increases affiliation among the students and between the students and the instructor.
Taking ENG 101 with students whose writing ability placed them in ENG 101 helps ALP students improve their writing and their student skills.
Students experience their instructors more as "coaches" whose primary role is to help them succeed than as "judges" who stand in the way of their succeeding.
Students in ALP receive increased individual attention and instruction tailored to their individual needs.
Instruction in grammar, punctuation is more effective in the small ALP sections.
ALP decreases student classroom behaviors that impede success.
Students receive assistance with such non-academic problems as financial, medical, family, legal, transportation, or difficulties at work and, therefore, are less likely to drop out during the semester.
Students in ALP become more motivated to learn grammar, punctuation, and usage.
The ENG 101 class provides a context in which students can apply what they are learning in ENG 052.

Details are available at our web site: [6]

We are eager to locate other schools that would be interested in adopting ALP and would be happy to provide assistance in doing so. Contact me at the email below.

Peter Adams
Professor of English Community College Baltimore County

Bravo-I see the student support/mentoring piece at work here, and it does breed success.

Stephanie Moran

Good afternoon,

As a person who has always preferred looking at spreadsheets to reading a daunting document of any length, I understand math anxiety in reverse. We all have our comfort zones. However, the reality today is high demand, high paying jobs demand skills from all academic areas.

We often find our transitions students have a math deficit, similar to the comments posted today. Our program uses the concept of "dual enrollment or co-enrollment". ACCUPLACER scores may reflect a student is ready for transitions or even an entry level college course in one area but not another...the other is usually math. The student may go on to transitions in all but the math and take an ABE or pre-Algebra course.

We have found this approach to keep students interest high, allows them to continue to work toward attending a college program, and receive the assistance in a weak area.

Brenda S. Gagne, Director
Noble Adult & Community Education
North Berwick, Maine

I coordinate the transitions program at Quinsigamond Community College, and we allow students to retake the Accuplacer twice with no questions asked and then additionally with an advisor's permission. When I was preparing a student a few years back, she took the Accuplacer on a Monday and placed into basic developmental English and math classes. On Tuesday, she took it again and placed into intermediate level classes. On Wednesday, she took it again and placed into college-level English and math classes. For some, the content of the test has nothing to do with a student's ability to obtain a higher score, and the issue is more so about becoming comfortable taking a computerized test.

Kirsten M. Daigneault
Future Focus Transitions Program
Worcester, MA

I have had a similar experience with testing. I once did a study where we looked at students who were currently enrolled in college, had above a B average, and who took either a TABE or CASAS assessment. We found that a majority scored below the equivalent of a 10th grade reading or math level - which would have precluded them from entering a non-degree based LPN program. In other words, we had some students working successfully towards completing an ADN or BA who would not have been allowed entry into an LPN program based on test scores.

Laura Chenven
H-CAP National Coordinator

When my 17 year-old daughter took the Accuplacer last Fall, she hadn't be trained in how to be successful with a computer adaptive test. So, her initial score was very low because she didn't recognize that getting questions at the same difficulty level means that she was giving incorrect answers. Confirmation that she was answering correctly would come from getting questions that are increasingly more difficult. She used this new information to change her response pattern, and passed at college level.

Michael Tate

This is valuable information that should be passed on to our students. Thanks, Michael.

Ranee Cervania
Curriculum Specialist
Ready for College - Colorado Success UNlimited (SUN)
Colorado Community College System

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