Is the Accuplacer Accurate?

Dr. Shrewsbury

This week I took the Accuplacer, a College Board placement test currently used by many community colleges. Thank God, I’m “college and career ready.” I say “thank God” because I believe that my performance on that test owes little to my intellect and reasoning ability. I struggled so much with the test that I was surprised when I got my scores that I seemed to have only missed one question on reading and one question on sentence structure. Here’s the thing: I graduated both high school and college at the head of my class, I attended college on scholarships and grants that left me with no college debt, I earned an MA that certified me as a reading specialist, I taught English for 30 years, and I’ve worked in my district’s curriculum office for over eight years.

Take a moment to absorb that.

I don’t believe that anyone who knows me or who’s worked with me would question my intellect, my ability to reason, or my drive in lifting myself out of the poverty of my childhood. None of my teachers or my college professors would have questioned my readiness for college. But I wrestled with a community college placement test that acts as a gatekeeper for our most disadvantaged students. Maryland’s community colleges require that any student who is not designated as college and career ready by an appropriate score on an Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate test or on the ACT or SAT must take the Accuplacer.

Of the freshmen who enter Montgomery College in Maryland each fall, about a third are placed into developmental courses in reading, writing, or math. Students pay tuition for these courses, but they receive no college credit toward a degree. Most of these students do not go on to credit-bearing courses, and the students in these courses are largely male and students of color.

Before I took the Accuplacer, I looked at the sample questions on their web site. Here is one of the questions on the Reading Comprehension test:

3. It is said that a smile is universally understood. And nothing triggers a smile more universally than a taste of sugar. Nearly everyone loves sugar. Infant studies indicate that humans are born with an innate love of sweets. Based on statistics, a lot of people in Great Britain must be smiling because on average, every man, woman, and child in that country consumes 95 pounds of sugar each year.

From this passage it seems safe to conclude that the English

A. do not know that too much sugar is unhealthy.

B. eat desserts at every meal.

C. are fonder of sweets than most people.

D. have more cavities than any other people.

Now I knew before I looked at the answer key that the desired answer was “C.” But there is absolutely nothing in the passage to support that answer. No comparisons are made to any statistics from other countries or peoples. In addition, according to most sources, including Encyclopaedia Britannica, Great Britain is generally considered to include England, Scotland, and Wales—and, as one of my readers points out, Northern Ireland—but the stem of the question refers only to England. And though I am not allowed to divulge the content of the test I took last week, I encountered at least three of 20 questions that had even more ambiguous questions and answers.

I was even more appalled at the inappropriateness of the Accuplacer after I completed the Sentence Skills portion of the test. The sample questions on the web site seem generally reasonable. One of the two sections gives questions such as this:

19. While bear attacks on humans are extremely rare, most occur when a mother bear’s cubs are approached.

Rewrite, beginning with

Bear attacks on humans are extremely rare,

The next words will be

A. but approaching a mother bear’s cubs

B. and approaching a mother bear’s cubs

C. even though approaching a mother bear’s cubs

D. nevertheless approaching a mother bear’s cubs

However, the Accuplacer is a computer-generated test in which an individual’s responses determine the difficulty of successive questions. Because I was able to easily answer questions like this one, I was given questions that did not ask what the next words would be, as the samples on the web site do, but which phrase might appear later in the sentence. It was like being given the frame of a puzzle and being asked to place a key puzzle piece in the right spot without any of the puzzle pieces that immediately surrounded it.

Yet we are asking our students who face the greatest hurdles in continuing their education to be successful on a test that, in my opinion, is not nearly as well constructed as other high stakes tests, including the PARCC. And many of the students who must take the Accuplacer are our most vulnerable students—students of poverty, students who speak English as a second language, students who have learning disabilities.

I’m certain that my increasing indignation played no small role in my challenges on the Accuplacer. But even considering that factor, I should not have to struggle on any reasonable measure of college readiness. I am an intelligent, successful adult who reads voraciously and writes well. I should have been able to breeze through a placement test for 18-year-olds who struggled to earn a high school diploma.

My colleagues and I were asked to take the test so that we could better prepare our students for it.  But why should we prepare our students for a test that primarily assesses the persistence of the test taker?  As I looked around the room, I realized that many of my colleagues were frustrated with the test as well, though I was the only one who expressed my indignation and cried tears of frustration that this test is a roadblock to kids like me—poor kids who are the first in their families to attempt college.

We should be outraged. It is unconscionable that the College Board and our community colleges are making a great deal of money on this test and on remedial courses from students who have little chance of going on to credit-bearing courses. We should sound alarm bells and marshal the forces of every parent whose child has ever been forced to take a remedial course at a community college.

Will you join me? What can we do? I welcome your ideas and comments.

Note: The opinions expressed here are my own views as a child of poverty and are not intended to reflect the views of my employer or any of my associates.

One thought on “Is the Accuplacer Accurate?”

  1. This is disgusting. What happened to open admission? When I was going to school, anyone could go to Community College as long as they had passed high school. It is clear to me that testing is now a money-maker. We have been screaming about placement tests for as long as I can remember and nothing has changed. If anything, there are more of them and they do not help students in any way.

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