The SAT is a household name and AP classes are ubiquitous. But the Accuplacer, a lesser-known suite of tests from the College Board, also plays an important role in helping gauge college readiness and is used by some schools to determine accurate course placement.
While the SAT has a reputation as a high-stakes exam traditionally tied to admissions decisions and scholarships, college officials say the Accuplacer is more about finding out where student abilities stand in order to place them in the proper classes. Often the exam is used by high schools to determine dual enrollment capabilities and by colleges to measure the abilities of adult learners.
“The Accuplacer placement test is designed to help see where (prospective) students are currently at with the course content,” says Hannah Mathes, associate director of the testing center at Heartland Community College in Illinois.
The Accuplacer is commonly used at community colleges to help determine which classes are appropriate for entering students. Other placement options include high school GPA and standardized test scores.
Mathes says the Accuplacer is likely to be taken by prospective students who don’t have recent grades or SAT or ACT scores. While traditional-age college freshmen straight out of high school have recent GPA data and possibly test scores, that is less true of adult students who haven’t been in the classroom in years.
College applicants may also use the Accuplacer to test into higher-level math courses, such as calculus, if they want to take those classes but don’t have the classroom experience to show they can do the work.
But experts say the exam is ultimately about recognizing where students are and placing them in programs to help achieve their end goals, which vary greatly. For example, a student aiming for an associate degree will have greater requirements than someone enrolling in a short-term certificate program, which may have limited requirements for math and emphasize other skills instead.
“We want to ensure that students are prepared and we want to accurately place students in the right courses so they can complete those courses successfully,” says Traci Van Prooyen, Heartland’s associate vice president for academic affairs.
What to Expect When Taking the Accuplacer
While other standardized exams may feel like a race against the clock, the Accuplacer is untimed. How quickly a student finishes will depend on his or her abilities, but completion time is typically two to three hours depending on placement level.
Though some other exams may take weeks after the test day for the results to be released, Accuplacer scores are provided immediately.
According to the College Board website, the Accuplacer “uses the latest computer-adaptive technology, which means the questions you see are based on your skill level.” How a test-taker responds to a question will determine the difficulty of the next question. Additionally, colleges have some flexibility in determining what is on the test in order to suit their own program assessment needs.
Prices to administer the test are set by individual colleges, and some don’t charge students a fee. Both in-person and remote testing opportunities are available but may vary by college. Students should visit the College Board website to find testing options.
How to Understand Accuplacer Scores
The universal question when taking a standardized test is, “What’s a good score?” The answer often depends on what the student is aiming for, and the same rings true regarding the Accuplacer. It comes down to what placement the student is targeting.
Some students may be looking to get into higher-level courses while others are just looking to get into college. That may mean one student is happy with avoiding remedial classes while another needs this work to build a solid academic foundation.
Essentially, there is no such thing as passing or failing the Accuplacer, experts say.
“One of the things that we frequently tell students is that at our institution, there’s no passing and there’s no failing,” Mathes says. “Regardless of how they score on the test, they will get a placement at the end of the day.”
The Accuplacer “supports students ready to start earning credits toward their degree as well as those who need to develop their skills before taking college-level courses,” Jerome White, director of media relations and external communications at the College Board, wrote in an email. He added that “test results let students know where they stand academically, which makes it easier for them to plan a successful path toward a college degree.”
Students should think of the Accuplacer as a series of tests, all with slightly different scoring mechanisms. For example, the Accuplacer reading, writing, quantitative reasoning and statistics, and advanced algebra and functions tests each have a score range of 200 to 300.
The best way to get a sense of what those scores mean is to understand the threshold needed to get into desired college classes. Students should check with individual colleges to see what scores they should aim for based on their goals.
The essay portion of the exam, WritePlacer, has a score range of 1 to 8.
The Accuplacer can also be used to determine placement for students who speak English as a second language. The College Board offers four Accuplacer ESL tests — language use, listening, reading and sentence skills — which are each scored on a range of 20 to 120. The essay portion, WritePlacer ESL, is scored on a range from 1 to 6.
“To help students understand what their score means, they can review the Skills Insight statements for each test,” White says.
Where to Find Accuplacer Test Prep Resources
Unlike the SAT and ACT, which have seemingly endless options of free and paid resources, Accuplacer test prep content isn’t as widely available from third-party providers. But the College Board does offer complimentary exam practice resources online.
Some schools, such as Heartland, also offer tutoring services for applicants planning to take the Accuplacer. In addition to in-house tutoring services, Mathes also recommends that students sign up for practice sessions on the College Board website. She cites the Khan Academy website as another useful test prep resource, particularly to help students with the math tests.
However prospective students choose to study, Van Prooyen encourages them to get an early start. “Instead of studying the night before — which tends to increase anxiety — if you spread out test preparation over a week or two, that helps lower test anxiety.”
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