Preparing for the “Next Generation” Accuplacer

A prospective member of our service wrote in to ask about whether our Accuplacer review program is good for the “next generation” version of the Accuplacer coming in 2019, so I thought now would be a good time to write a blog post about this since this question is going to start getting asked a lot more!

[fyi, I have a friend who is a high-level administrator at a community college in California. She is my source for a lot of the political and administrative info I relate below regarding Accuplacer and how it relates to increasing political pressure on community colleges to improve their pass rates and graduation/transfer rates.]

My understanding is that this “next gen Accuplacer” is one of those things where the company that makes the accuplacer is under pressure for not doing a very good job of helping colleges place students into appropriate math classes, so they’re under a lot of pressure to revamp everything (the same way they keep changing the SAT when in fact everyone knows at this point that the SAT can be gamed (at least to some extent) by prep). They charge colleges around $40 per test session (which is reimbursed by state and federal governments), so they’re making a lot of money off this thing, yet a lot of schools (and whole states) are bailing on Accuplacer because it doesn’t do a great job of placing students in such a way as to maximize outcomes that colleges care about — graduation rates, dropout rates, pass rates, transfer rates, etc.

Basically, Accuplacer doesn’t work great in helping colleges to place students in such a way as to maximize the likelihood that they will succeed in college in an appropriate amount of time: too often it places students too far back in math (thus making them less likely to graduate because extra classes = extra years of study) when in fact with a little extra support or review they could have skipped a class or two and been more likely to succeed.

More classes = more years = less likely for student success. There are a million reasons a part time student (or even a full time one) might drop out after any given semester, from moving to getting married to switching jobs to getting tired of going to school to having to care for a family member to having kids, so it’s important not to go around adding semesters to a student’s program if you don’t need to!

Is it Accuplacer’s fault that high stakes testing doesn’t work great in this situation? Not really: any high-stakes test that people don’t prepare for (or some do and some don’t) is going to get wildly variant outcomes depending on whether an individual prepares for it or walks in rusty from not having had a math class in years. The Accuplacer doesn’t know if you reviewed or not and they don’t know what grades you got in high school or what math classes you took: that’s what the admissions department of the college is for! And more and more, colleges are deciding that Accuplacer isn’t helping the admissions office as much as they thought it would.

The problem with that approach is that math is still math, and the problems with the Accuplacer aren’t just due to the style of the test or the material it covers — the problem with Accuplacer is that all it’s really testing is whether you reviewed math recently or you’re rusty. For example, if you get a couple percentage problems wrong, accuplacer isn’t good at figuring out which applies to you:

a) you got those percentage problems wrong because you never knew how to do percentage problems, even back in high school, thus you really need to go back to Basic Math or Pre-Algebra and start from scratch in college; or

b) you do not know how to do percentage problems right now because you graduated high school 10 years ago and never thought about math again, then you walked into the Accuplacer test cold without any review because you’re a busy person with a life, but you got an A in pre-Calc back in high school and if you had studied even a tiny bit you would have known how to do percentage problems, thus the college should place you into pre-calculus or at least College Algebra because pre-algebra would be a waste of your time if you had reviewed even a little bit.

So now let’s think about this from Accuplacer’s point of view: “Given that the whole placement test model has some issues, yet that’s how we make all our money, how do we stop colleges and state university systems from quitting our test?” The answer they’ve been using for the SAT for 15 years and are now trying on Accuplacer: “We’re changing everything, we swear! We’re rolling out a whole new test! Totally different! Really going to fix everything! It’s called the Next Gen because it’s so different and next-generation-ish and like wow it’s going to be amazing! Please don’t stop paying us!”

On our Accuplacer page video, chris tells a story of someone who went into Accuplacer cold and ended up with 2 extra years of college math to do, because she hadn’t had math in 10 years and didn’t realize how important the Accuplacer was. If she’d known she couldn’t retake it and it could nail her that bad, she would have studied!

So the “Next Gen” thing is kind of just a marketing thing. Will it be slightly different? Yes. Will there be slightly different numbers of questions? Probably. Will it still ask percentage problems and functions problems? Absolutely! If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be a math test. So as with all standardized tests, you can’t really get around brushing up on the underlying material, so that would be my recommendation for the “next gen” as well as any other standardized test.

That said, we’ll probably change our practice tests to match the new test, but the review videos etc will remain the same. Because if you don’t remember fractions, it’s not going to matter how they ask a fractions problem.

Good luck, and for goodness sakes, don’t go into Accuplacer unprepared!