Pre-tests are commonly used in math education and in other disciplines as a placement test. Usually when a student takes one of these placement tests they just completed a section of courses. Then the institution, such as a public school or a college, uses a rubric to determine how to appropriately match up their skills with a new course. My first experience with a placement test was in the seventh grade. The test was to see which students would be placed on the advanced math track. My score was high enough to placed into the high track but I denied it. The excuse I gave was that I was not ready, but the truth was that I did not want to be challenged, or in others words I was afraid of taking a risk of possible failure. My other experience was during my orientation for college. I tested into Calculus I and I clearly remember that class. There were plenty of students who already took Pre-Calculus or Calculus in high school and these students always seemed to be one step ahead of the material. As a result, I frequently became intimidated of these students’ knowledge and overwhelmed of a feeling that I do not belong in the class. The reason why I am reflecting on these past experiences is because I now teach at a community college where students take a placement test and the majority qualify into developmental math. This is new for me because when I taught 8th grade, my students where those that passed seventh grade. But now my student population is much more diverse. It ranges from a factory worker who has not been in school for 20 years to a 20 year old who is attending community college because of their parents. The math understanding that these students have is just as diverse too. It ranges from not knowing multiplication facts to “I think I know it but I definitely need a refresher”. So I question if these students are experiencing the same emotions I was as an seventh grader and as a college freshmen. Furthermore is this normal, is this healthy, and is this the way it should be?
Let’s first examine my seventh grade fear of not wanting to be challenged. As a student enters a math class how challenged should they be? One aspect about this is that certain students can handle being pressured or being challenged much easier than others. While some students rise to the challenge, others will completely shut down. This then makes it difficult to formulate a blanket statement about how students should be academically challenged. However, educators can counter attack this issue by making a conscious effort to challenge all student in their classroom. I have yet to have a class where all students had the same level of understanding. The class’s understanding has always fit under a bell curve. Perhaps, all that an educator can do is properly communicate with a student why or why not they are not accepting a challenge, such as being in a higher level class or not performing at their best. Of course, finding the time to have these conversations is challenge within it self.
The other emotion I had related to a placement test was the intimidation I experienced after being placed into my college calculus class. I believe that this one is very common in the developmental math classes. The math taught in these courses range from fourth grade to ninth grade material. So when a student who does not take the placement test serious and gets put into a class that is lower than they believe they should be, often these student make comments that can be intimidating for other students. For example, they might say, “I know this, it so easy!” or “Can I just do the short cut?” or “Come on who really does not know this stuff?” This perspective of people being better than me or me being better than others is common in the classroom. This might be shedding light to the confidence level of a student, which in math class can be large barrier. Again, the main issue here is how the developmental level of the learner side can have a tremendous impact on a student. For me, I would say that I did not truly develop into a college student until late sophomore year. It took me a year and half to mature out of my high school habits. Academically I was prepared but as learner I was not. As a result, I did not know how to handle others being ahead of me and how to manage challenges. Hopefully, I share my experience with students who are in the same boat. Then they might become aware of how the math is not intimidating them, rather it is the discomfort of not knowing how to handle a challenge or a difficulty.
I never had to take a placement test for my master’s of math program. The GRE is a some what of a placement test but it is not specifically designed to place students in a certain class. It used to measure the requirments of a college. Yet, suppose I was required to take a math placement test. Would I be able to test into graduate level math classes? After teaching 8th grade math for five years, I can only imagine how difficult it would have been for me. For instance, a graduate level math course is Analysis. It is an intense version of calculus and the last time I took a calculus course was about eight years. As the saying goes, if you don’t use it then you will loose it; and it was pretty much gone from my brain. So does this mean that if I am going to take graduate level courses that I need to be efficient with my calculus skills? Re-taking those classes could set me back a year, which translates to more money for a masters. Again, my current students who are taking developmental math could be thinking the same thing. “I have to take all of these low level courses, that don’t count for any credit, even before I take my required math class?” I cannot fairly comment on the pros and cons pertaining to these developmental courses due to my small experience teaching them. The most important thing I can do is to share my own experiences and to continue reflecting on the level impact it has on my students.