Foundations of Education and Instructional Assessment/Standardized Testing/College Placement

College Placement Tests
By Gurmeet Gill

Learning TargetsEdit

Students should be able to:

  • define college placement test
  • identify the type of assessment to which it corresponds
  • describe the purpose(s) of college placement tests
  • explain the advantages and disadvantages of these tests

What are College Placement Tests?Edit

College Placement Tests

"Tests used by colleges to determine student accomplishment levels for purposes of placing them in appropriate courses." (Purdue University Calumet, 2007)


Upon entering college, students are required to take college placement tests. These tests determine the student's level of readiness regarding college-level work, often in the core classes of Mathematics and English. Surprisingly, approximately half of all students entering college score below the minimum. For these students, colleges provide remedial classes in that specific subject area. These classes help the students acquire the skills and knowledge-base that are needed prior to taking the college entry-level class for that core subject area. (EduGuide, 2008).

Type of AssessmentEdit

College placement tests are a form of criterion-referenced assessment. In this type of assessment, "test scores [translate] into a statement about the behavior to be expected of a person with that score or their relationship to a specified subject matter" (Wikipedia, 2008). Criterion referenced assessments are also referred to as standards-based assessments. The assessment is used to determine whether the student has sufficiently learned the material for which he/she is being tested. The ACT, a standardized achievement examination for college admission, is an example of this type of assessment (Wikipedia, 2008). The two most common college placement tests, COMPASS and ACCUPLACER, are also examples of criterion-referenced assessment (Achieve, Inc., 2007).

Purpose(s) of College Placement TestsEdit

Key objectives of college placement tests:

  • identify areas of strength and areas of weakness
  • determine readiness for college level course work
  • prevent disruption of educational progress due to lack of readiness

(ACT, Inc., 2008)

College placement tests primarily serve to determine whether a student has the developed the knowledge and/or skills needed to take the college entry-level courses in a specific subject area. These tests notify the college of the students strengths and weaknesses in that subject area. For instance, if a student has taken a placement test in Mathematics, the test may show that the student understands pre-algebra since he answered all, or most, related questions correctly. However, that same student may struggle in algebra since he answered a significant proportion of related questions incorrectly. The main objective of the college placement test is to identify key problems in core subject areas before the student's education progress is disrupted (ACT, Inc., 2008).

Examples of College Placement TestsEdit



COMPASS is an untimed, computerized placement test that is managed by the same company that administers the ACT test. It is used by many colleges throughout the United States. Tests offered by COMPASS include reading, mathematics, writing skills, writing essay (e-write), and English as a Second Language (ESL). Upon completion of this placement test, students are not only immediately notified of their score, but also receive information regarding the courses for which they should register (ACT, Inc., 2008).

Sample Test QuestionsEdit


Reading Sample Passage

The Reading Placement Test consists of five types of reading comprehension passages - Practical Reasoning, Prose Fiction, Humanities, Social Sciences, and Natural Sciences (ACT, Inc., 2008). The adjacent link is an excellent example of a Humanities passage. It includes two multiple-choice questions which address referring and reasoning skills.


Math Sample Question

The Mathematics Placement Test consists of multiple choice questions which test five mathematical areas - Numerical Skills/Pre-Algebra, Algebra, College Algebra, Geometry, and Trigonometry. Each mathematical placement area tests for basic skills, application, and analysis (ACT, Inc., 2008). The adjacent link exemplifies the kind of questions that would be found on the Numerical Skills/Pre-Algebra Placement Test. The four multiple choice questions test all three areas - basic skills, application, and analysis.

Writing Skills

Writing Skills Sample Essay

The Writing Skills Placement Test consists of essays that each contain various errors. At the end of each essay, there are multiple choice questions which test knowledge and skills in two key content categories - Usage/Mechanics and Rhetorical Skills. Usage/Mechanics includes punctuation, basic grammar and usage, as well as, sentence structure. Rhetorical Skills includes strategy, organization, and style (ACT, Inc., 2008). The adjacent link is an excellent representation of a sample essay and questions set that students would find on the Writing Skills Placement Test. The four multiple choice questions following the essay address four of the six areas found under the content categories. The first and third questions test the students on two different areas concerning Usage/Mechanics; whereas, the second and fourth questions test two different areas concerning Rhetorical Skills.



ACCUPLACER, a computer adaptive test, is used by colleges' academic advisors, counselors, and Registrar's Offices to decide course selection for students. It is used in conjunction with the student's academic background and ambitions. While the multiple-choice tests are untimed, the essay test can be either timed or untimed. Tests offered by ACCUPLACER include reading, writing, mathematics, and English as a Second Language (ESL). Upon completion of any of the ACCUPLACER placement tests, students receive an immediate score report from the college (College Board, 2008).

Sample Test QuestionsEdit

The ACCUPLACER Placement Tests address seven key areas of academics in reading, writing, language use, mathematics, and English as a Second Language. The seven components include Sentence Skills, Reading Comprehension, an Arithmetic Test, Elementary Algebra, a College Level Math Test, a Written Essay, and ESL Testing (College Board, 2008). Examples of each can be found in the following link:

ACCUPLACER Sample Questions

English as a Second Language (ESL)

The ESL Placement Test is for those students who have learned English as a second language, or in addition to their native language. This placement test assesses the student's skills in English. The test is divided into five sections, each examining a different area of English. The five sections include ESL Reading Skills, ESL Language Use, ESL Sentence Meaning, WritePlacer ESL, and ESL Listening. Students can be required to take one or more of these sections, as determined by the college or university (College Board, 2008).

Advantages and Disadvantages of College Placement TestsEdit



  • Instrumental in determining whether student is unlikely to succeed in a credit-bearing college course
  • Emphasis on informational text, which reflects the type of reading done in college
  • (Achieve, Inc., 2007, p. 13)


  • Require students to demonstrate ability to take a position/stand or develop a point of view
  • Scoring rubrics often emulate college-ready expectations
  • Multiple-choice section(s) address editing and revising skills
  • (Achieve, Inc., 2007, p. 19)


  • Emphasizes algebra
  • Arranged in multiple tiers
  • (Achieve, Inc., 2007, pp. 26-28)



  • Passages less challenging than those in admission tests
  • Passages not well-aligned to later high school, but rather to middle school and early high school
  • Overall, far less rigorous in placement tests than admission tests
  • (Achieve, Inc., 2007, p. 13)


  • Emphasis on lower-level cognitive skills; unable to fully assess student's abilities
  • Multiple-choice section(s) focus less on advanced skills - organization/development of ideas
  • (Achieve, Inc., 2007, pp. 19-25)


  • Favors pre-algebra and basic algebra instead of advanced algebra concepts needed for College Algebra
  • Not enough questions to draw on higher-level thinking
  • Narrow; not reflective of complete scale of content
  • (Achieve, Inc., 2007, p. 26)

Generation 1.5Edit

"When colleges offer several options for writing placement, they demonstrate sensitivity to the various needs new students have; however, fair and appropriate placement is potentially more complex than even these many options reveal." (Di Gennaro, 2008, p. 62)

In the United States, there is an increase in the number of students seeking higher education who are considered non-native English speakers. As a result, the heavy reliance on, and reliability of, college writing placement tests in determining student placement into writing courses is of grave concern. Many colleges and universities offer different placement alternatives. Examples of these include, but are not limited to, ESL (English as a Second Language) writing sections, developmental and/or basic writing courses, and freshman/first-year composition. However, these alternatives just simply are not enough (Di Gennaro, 2007, p. 62).

Generation 1.5 is a term coined by Linda Harklau, Kay Losey, and Meryl Siegal, in their 1999 book. Generation 1.5 learners are commonly described as students for whom English is a second language (L2); however, they have often completed their secondary school education in the United States prior to attending college (Di Gennaro, 2007, p.65). Furthermore, Generation 1.5 learners have received the majority, if not all, of their formal education in English; whereas, L2 students have had their primary, and even part of their secondary, school education in their native language Di Genarro, 2007, p. 66). According to Di Genarro (2007), writing program administrators should do more than simply recognize the different types of learners for whom English is a second language. "We must also adopt or design assessment procedures to help us identify these different groups of learners if we are to provide them with the most appropriate placement options, ensuring that our tests serve as door-openers rather than gate-keepers" (Di Genarro, 2007, p. 75).


College placement tests are criterion-referenced assessments used by colleges and universities across the United States. Of the many different placement tests available, COMPASS and ACCUPLACER are the most commonly used. These tests not only assess student readiness in core college classes, but also determine academic areas of strength and weakness for each student. Reading, writing, mathematics, and ESL are the most common areas of testing by colleges and universities. For each of these areas, there are advantages, as well as, disadvantages. However, colleges and universities continue to require college placement tests, thus implying that the advantages strongly outweigh the disadvantages. The controversy continues over the benefits and drawbacks of college placement tests, especially for ESL and Generation 1.5 learners.

Test Your KnowledgeEdit

1. College placement tests are what type of assessment?
a) Norm-referenced assessment
b) Criterion-referenced assessment
c) Ipsative assessment
d) Forward looking assessment

2. Tests offered by COMPASS include which of the following?
a) Reading, writing skills, mathematics
b) Mathematics, ESL, social studies
c) ESL, social studies, writing essay
d) Science, reading, writing skills

3. Marie is an in-coming freshman at her local university. She has just taken several college placement tests. Which of the following does not reflect a reason that the college placement tests were administered?
a) to determine what areas of a subject Marie does not know
b) to determine what areas of a subject Marie already knows
c) to determine Marie's readiness in college level work in core classes
d) to determine Marie’s academic standing in the college

4. Mai Ling is considered a Generation 1.5 learner. Which of the following is not likely to be true of Mai Ling?
a) She is from a country other than the United States
b) She probably learned English as a second language
c) She received very little formal education in English
d) She completed secondary school in the United States


Achieve, Inc. (2007). Aligned expectations? A closer look college admissions and placement tests. Retrieved from ERIC database.

ACT, Inc. (2008). COMPASS. Retrieved from

College Board. (2008). ACCUPLACER. Retrieved from

College Board. (2007). ACCUPLACER: Sample questions for students. Retrieved from

Criterion-referenced test. (2008). Retrieved November 27, 2008, from Wikipedia:

Di Gennaro, K. (2008). Assessment of generation 1.5 learners for placement into college writing courses. Journal of Basic Writing, 27(1), 61-79. Retrieved from

EduGuide. (2008). College placement sample tests. Retrieved from

Purdue University Calumet. (2007). Glossary. Retrieved from


1. b
2. a
3. d
4. c

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Last modified on 10 April 2010, at 15:38