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First test in college a toughie; Accuplacer shows student's skill level.

Byline: Jacqueline Reis

Attention, high school students: The MCAS is not the last high-stakes test you will take.

If you enroll in a community college or state college, you likely will be greeted with Accuplacer, a College Board product that is used in more than 1,200 schools nationwide.

A bad Accuplacer score won't bump you out of college at the last minute, but it will put you in one or more remedial courses that could add a semester or two to your timeline, hundreds of dollars to your tuition bill and, in some cases, a dose of discouragement to an already challenging two or four years.

The Accuplacer is a high-stakes test many people have never heard of, and it, or something like it, will get a more public profile under Gov. Deval L. Patrick's education proposals, which call for a state diagnostic readiness test for high school juniors to help them pick their senior courses.

A proposed pilot program that would have spent $900,000 to give the Accuplacer to 15,000 high school juniors did not pass the Legislature this year, but schools such as Quinsigamond Community College are reaching out on their own. QCC has been working with some of Worcester's public high schools for five years, but it's too early to tell how that is paying off, said Colleen R. Doherty, assistant dean of career and academic advisement at the college.

Students who miss the cutoff scores on the Accuplacer end up in a remedial course, often called a "developmental" course, for at least one semester. Students must pay for those courses, and they count toward a student's grade-point average. They do not, however, count toward their college degree.

If the Accuplacer were a fisherman's net, it would gather a fairly good catch. Sixty-five percent of students at community colleges, 22 percent of those at state colleges and 8 percent of students at a state university took at least one remedial class when they started college in 2005, according to the state. (The University of Massachusetts, however, uses the Accuplacer differently than community and state colleges and differently at its different campuses.) Nationwide, about half of all college students need remedial courses, according to an article last month in Education Week.

"A lot of students just aren't college-ready," said state Sen. Robert A. O'Leary, D-Cummaquid, a history professor at Massachusetts Maritime Academy.

He supported the pilot program and said he will revive the bill that proposed it.

Students' math skills are weaker than their English, but they only need to know basic geometry and algebra, not trigonometry or calculus, to get out of remedial work. Worcester State College Mathematics Professor Richard C. Bisk believes their skills deficit goes back further than high school course selection.

"We see students who are very weak in things like fractions, which are taught in elementary school," he said. "Most elementary school teachers - and I don't think it's their fault - don't have the background they need to teach elementary school mathematics well."

Kassandra L. Haines, 19, of Uxbridge, a Quinsigamond student who must take remedial math, blamed her high school education for not preparing her for college math, but her comments reflect some of what Mr. Bisk mentioned. "I'm really bad at fractions," she said. She didn't learn much math in her two years at a Boston public high school and never caught up before graduating from Blackstone-Millville Regional High School, she said.

With the remedial courses, she'll need six semesters of math to graduate in psychology, her intended major. She plans to take two math classes next summer in order to stay on schedule.

"It doesn't really bother me too much," she said of the remedial courses. And despite statistics that show students in remedial courses are less likely to graduate, she sounded nothing but enthusiastic about her major. "I touched a brain today," she said with glee, adding that it once belonged to a goat. "It felt like soaked mushrooms."

Contact Jacqueline Reis at

High-stakes Accuplacer test is also high tech

The computerized Accuplacer takes a bit of getting used to.

After the test-taker uses the computer mouse to select an answer to each multiple choice question, a dialogue box pops up and asks if the user is certain, because there is no going back. It's a bit like having Regis Philbin on your shoulder inquiring, "Is that your final answer?"

The test adjusts the difficulty of the questions based on each test-taker's answers, and students, armed with scrap paper but not calculators, can spend as long as they like on it. Colleges even encourage them to study for it.

"Even on our Web site we say you really need to study first. We give them resources that they can study," said Quinsigamond Community College's Colleen R. Doherty, assistant dean of career and academic advisement at the college.

"It's a high-stakes test, and we want you to do well on it," she said. "No one wants to be in developmental - they want to move right into college - but I think they understand that it's better for them to get the basics they need," she said.
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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Jul 28, 2008
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