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Assume that you have incoming college freshmen, so you might have access to their high school courses and grades, as well as their results on a placement test offered by your college. Also, assume that these are students who will need to progress along this sequence for their major (in chemistry or economics, e.g.) and will take the course in which they're placed during their first semester.

What are some effective methods to assess the abilities of incoming students and properly place them into these courses? Should you incorporate other data (e.g. high school courses and grades)? When designing a placement test, what are some considerations to be made to make it a good and effective test? What kinds of questions should be asked, and how should they be scored? What would you make you more apt to "bump up" a student beyond their placement, if they asked for it?

I am interested both in research about these questions (although I suspect it might be limited) as well as personal anecdotes/opinions/recommendations, especially if you were involved in designing and implementing a placement test.

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  • $\begingroup$ I'm not familiar with the US, but around here in Chile high school grades (and contents really covered, as opposed to what is declared) are all over the map, I wouldn't place too much faith in them. Other than that, a single test won't be enough. Perhaps have a short time of "overall assessment" (not tests, but look how they fit in, how they do with homework, do they know how to study/organize their time, ...) would be ideal (if impractical). $\endgroup$ – vonbrand Mar 19 '14 at 3:04
  • $\begingroup$ From my own experience as a student, I started college after not having taken a math class in 10+ years and voluntary took College Algebra even though my classes, grades, and test grades should've placed me in Pre-calc due to time out of a classroom. As a tutor, I think that any student who has not had a math class in over 2-3 years will benefit from being placed in a class lower than the one for which they qualify. $\endgroup$ – David G Mar 19 '14 at 3:09
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What we found at our university was that most students who took the placement test were taking it to try to get into a higher mathematics course than their ACT score would allow. Taking these kids out of the mix, the next largest group would be the adults who are returning to school after some time off. What we have come to realize, is that you don't do the students any favors by putting them in a class for which they are not prepared. We have found that the ACT test does a fairly good job predicting mathematical ability. For those reasons, we rarely let a student into a higher mathematics course than what they actually tested into. If we do, we require the student (or parent of the student) to sign a paper that states "with your placement test /ACT test scores of ___ we disagree with your decision to take ______ and suggest that you reconsider your decision and take ________ instead, which is more in line with your placement test scores.

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  • $\begingroup$ "most students who took the placement test were taking it to try to get into a higher mathematics course than their ACT score would allow" Does this mean that the placement test was not required for others, that they would just accept whatever placement they're given? How was that placement chosen? $\endgroup$ – Brendan W. Sullivan Mar 20 '14 at 3:17
  • $\begingroup$ Students just out of high school can either take the placement test, or we will use their ACT scores to put them into a math class. If they make a score on the placement test that puts them into a higher math than their ACT score would allow, then they can choose which math to go into. The placement test is basically a combination of the previous semester's the Algebra, Pre-Calculus, and Calculus I final exams. So basically the student must pass the final exam, which is comprehensive, in the subject. $\endgroup$ – Todd Thomas Mar 20 '14 at 12:15

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