Improving the Administration of Mathematics Placement Tests

By Scott Sutherland

A University administered placement tests are common practice and normally occur in the areas of mathematics and science. However, the administration process for placement exams often differs across colleges and universities. Some perform the test at the beginning or end of the summer, while some do it during orientation. Some have the students come in to the high schools or universities to take it, while others send it to the students’ homes.

The resources required to administer placement tests are substantial. The State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook’s mathematics department has been giving a placement test to every freshman and a large fraction of their transfer students for 15 years, having developed a series of multiple choice questions ranging from arithmetic through to the end of single variable calculus.

For Stony Brook, the test was traditionally administered during orientation at the beginning of the year using paper-based Scantron cards. As such, the school was faced with the logistical nightmare of conducting the test, scanning and recording the grades in their student record, and advising the appropriate course placement all in one morning, so the students could register that afternoon. Not only was this process harrowing for the staff and faculty, the students often complained that they weren’t prepared, that they didn’t know they had to write a test, and therefore, the results did not truly represent their ability.

Stony Brook wanted to be able to administer the placement test before the students came to orientation and they wanted the students to be as prepared as possible. Maplesoft’s Maple T.A. addressed all of these issues by automating the entire process, from assessment to diagnostics, enabling the placement test to be done anytime, anywhere.

For Stony Brook, using Maple T.A. was a natural progression since the math department had already been using Maple™, a powerful and intuitive tool for mathematical research and evaluation.

The department chose to work with Maple T.A. for several reasons. Adoption was easy and straightforward. The campus already had a set of existing questions that could be dropped in without having any rewrites. The existing questions included a wide variety of question types including Maple-graded, standard, multiple selection, short answer/essay, matching, true/false, and mathematical formula. This allowed the campus to focus in on how the exam would be presented to the incoming students, rather than having to develop a new question bank.

Since the students are assessed at home and have a limited period of time to become familiar with the program, it was very important that the interface be intuitive and simple. The assessment is delivered through standard Web browsers, making it easy for students to interact with the system.

A Web browser interface was also used to author content and perform administrative tasks. Maple T.A. is also compatible with existing publishers’ textbook content. The ability to mold the tool to fit into different applications, such as Blackboard, was another benefit.

The faculty and staff are now able to quickly and easily compute the results. The campus has had fewer problems with 3,500 students in the first year of employing Maple T.A. The previous system could only handle a quarter as many students with far more student complaints on how to use the prior system. The adaptability of the tool with the ability to move the student to an easier or more advanced module based on performance in the current module provides better assessments of the student’s comprehension level.

The stress and chaos of registration day has been greatly reduced. The faculty and staff now know which math class students need to enroll in when they arrive at orientation. It has been a lot less work for the administration and feedback reveals that the students feel the scores better represent their abilities. There has been a net increase in satisfaction and happiness with the process.Stony Brook has many plans for Maple T.A. in the future. They are not only planning to evolve their placement test questions, but they plan to start using it in their pre-calculus course in conjunction with the textbook content. They also intend to use Maple T.A. as a homework engine, including homework assignments. Several other disciplines, including physics, chemistry, and economics, have also expressed interest in the tool, and the math department is more than willing to help them get started.

Scott Sutherland is the Director of Undergraduate Studies in Mathematics, SUNY Stony Brook

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