June 7, 2016

The Dreaded Placement Test

David Wingens ‘19


            As the end of the school year quickly approaches and the workload only increases, one thing many students have on their minds is what the next year of classes has in store for them. The process of placement differs by department, but generally, the department chairperson and teachers look at students’ grades and participation and, in some cases, placement tests.
The goal of a placement test is to see how well a student can retain knowledge and apply what they have learned in class throughout their high school career to the question at hand. Only Math, Spanish, Language Arts and Social Studies have placement tests. Even though they are not supposed to, these tests almost always lead to added stress.
            Teachers often attempt to comfort students by emphasizing that the placement exam is only a small piece of the placement equation and that class work and participation are just as important. However, students still feel stressed and study, which creates additional unnecessary stress for students. No one can blame a child who is being told that he or she is about to take a test that could decide what class they end up in next year and possibly for the remainder of high school for being stressed out.
Along with that, placement tests can put college-prep students at a big disadvantage if they have not learned all of the material on the test, leading to an educational system with little mobility for kids who feel that they belong at a higher level. This is more true for math than any other subject because it is naturally more fact-based and leaves little room for abstraction.
Possibly the most disliked part of the placement test idea is that a large part of the decision is made based on a moment in time. While a student’s normal grade is an average of his or her work throughout the year, the placement test tests a student’s ability in a specific timeframe and a specific skill. There does not seem to be a whole lot that a placement test can tell that is not already evident from classwork.
            That being said, placement tests might just be a necessary part of the placement process. They are a good baseline to see what each student knows when put on an even playing field. In addition, they never actually require studying. While many students do study for their placement tests, it is rarely, if ever, necessary for success. This is because the goal of a placement test is not to judge one’s knowledge on details, but to see what basic knowledge is retained, what the larger picture is about a given topic and what a student is capable of doing when applying this knowledge to an unfamiliar prompt. For this, placement tests, generally speaking, work. They are usually more about using prior knowledge and thinking logically to solve problems without having to memorize anything.

            While they may have their flaws and they seem at times to be unnecessary and stress-inducing, placement tests are an integral part of the placement system and they provide much needed information to the department heads and teachers when placing students into the appropriate class for them.

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