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Is Lack of Preparation to Blame for Poor Math-Placement Scores?

By Corey Murray

Across the country, community colleges are pushing to reduce the number of students enrolled in remedial math courses. But are all of the learners enrolled in remedial math really that far behind? Or did they simply fail to adequately prepare for the placement test? A new study from Columbia University’s Community College Research Center considers the problem of student preparation.

Thinker and prolific writer Malcolm Gladwell has long defended his “10,000-hour rule.” Essentially, the rule — made famous in Outliers, Gladwell’s 2008 best-selling book — posits that it takes 10,000 hours of dedicated practice for someone to master a craft to the best of his or her abilities. This could be any skill, from stone masonry to playing the piano.

But what about an academic skill set? Math, for example. Plenty of folks have come out against Gladwell’s rule in recent years. The old “practice makes perfect” adage works, but only if the person practicing fails to repeat the same mistakes and relentlessly pushes forward in pursuit of new knowledge and mastery.

While educators would love to think that their students will continue to reach new academic heights, even the most idealistic understand that there are gaps and occasional setbacks in the process. Things happen. Life gets in the way. Maybe a student who demonstrates clear understanding in class forgets to study for the next test or is forced to temporarily withdraw from class to focus on other priorities, only to return weeks — sometimes months — later, in need of a refresher. Or maybe, just maybe, the student has failed to grasp the importance of the exam.

In a effort to find out why so many community college students perform so poorly on math placement exams, researchers at Columbia University’s Community College Research Center recently surveyed 122 students enrolled in developmental math programs at one of four community colleges and held in-depth focus groups with another 34 students at those same colleges.

Almost across the board, students attributed their poor performance and subsequent placement into remedial math courses to a lack of adequate preparation, not to a misunderstanding of the subject matter.

What’s the trouble?

Assuming it’s poor preparation rather than a lack of understanding or ability that’s keeping students from placing into college-level math, what can educators do to get students moving in a more promising direction?

The survey suggests “four interconnected reasons” students fail to prepare for placement exams:

  • A failure to understand the stakes. Most students said they didn’t know until it was too late that a poor placement score could land them in one or more semesters of noncredit courses. Said one student (names and colleges were withheld): “I didn’t know what developmental math was or anything. When it clicked for me was once I registered for my classes, because they explained it.” This leads to another question: Could colleges be doing more up front, before the test, to explain the difference between credit and noncredit courses? Probably.
  • Not knowing about preparation materials. Sixty-four percent of the students surveyed said they had no idea that their college offered access to test-prep materials. That number was even great for nontraditional students: Seventy-three percent of students over the age of 23 said they did not know such materials existed. As a result, many students said they had no idea what to expect on the exam. Many did not know that calculators were prohibited.
  • Confusion about why and how to prepare. Even if students did know about the preparation materials, many said they did not understand how to study for the test. Though colleges provided a list of areas to be covered on the exam, at least one student complained that “it didn’t tell you exactly how to study for [the test] and what to expect.” Other students indicated that their instructors failed to emphasize the importance of studying. In an attempt to allay students’ anxiety, researchers suggested that educators give off an inadvertent air of nonchalance when talking with students about the exam.
  • Lack of confidence. Some students said they were just plain intimidated. In many cases, students doubted their math skills, even if they were good enough, and questioned whether they had what it takes to compete at a college level. Some wanted to place into remedial math. “This desire on the part of students lacking academic confidence to place into courses that are not overly challenging influenced their decision to not prepare for the exam,” according to the report.

Getting better

To improve preparation among students, the survey makes several recommendations, including developing a more comprehensive communication strategy that conveys the significance of placement exams; helping students understand what to expect; and proactively offering better, more comprehensive test preparation materials.

Parting advice from the survey: “Thoughtful exam preparation may generate more accurate placement.”

What does your college do to prepare students for placement exams?

Corey Murray

is editor of the 21st-Century Center.

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