Math entrance exam changes

University officials say they are cautiously optimistic about the effects of changes made to the math placement exam, a mathematics chairperson said.

SIU began to place students in math courses through a placement test in fall 2011. This year, the test has changed.

Chancellor Rita Cheng said in her Sept. 5 State of the University Address  the successful completion rate of math courses is expected to increase 20.3 percent. Gregory Budzban, mathematics department chair, said the department has improved with placing students in suitable courses.

“The current system appears to be placing students in courses that they are prepared for,” he said.

Budzban said the testing process has changed considerably since it was first implemented last year.

“The first year, we felt the results were not what we were looking for,” he said. “The students were being placed in courses that they were not arguably prepared for.”

Changes made to the test’s answering system might make the difference, he said.

The original test was primarily multiple choice, allowing students to potentially guess the answer, he said. This year, students are required to answer “created response” questions, problems that require them to enter the answer into a blank space rather than choosing from options.

Budzban said even though results looked positive, he was cautious about giving results before final numbers become available at the end of the semester.

“We’re still collecting data,” he said. “This is a new operation on this campus, and mathematicians are conservative by nature in terms of saying things that later cannot be supported by evidence.”

Robin Dean, a lecturer of mathematics, said tests given in the first several weeks of class could also determine students’ preparation for college-level math courses.

Dean said the test helps professors predict how well students will perform in the class.

“The placement test gives us an idea about how they are going to do in the course overall, as a rule,” he said. “That’s what the goal is. We’re trying to tweak that to where it works better.”

The mathematics department requires the test to ensure students don’t waste their time, Dean said.

“No one wins when you come in, take a course, and you don’t pass,” he said.

A grade of 70 or above is required in Math 107: Intermediate Algebra and 108: College Algebra for students to move forward to the next math class. Math 107 does not count toward graduation requirements; students who do not place into Math 108 through the exam must take the course before they progress in their math sequence.

“Our goal is to make sure that when (students) come in, that we feel like they can get at least a 70,” he said. “That’s a success.”

Dean gives several tests in his College Algebra class to determine students’ grasp of basic algebra concepts. The first test deals with basic arithmetic while the second test, given several weeks later, deals with more conceptual algebra.

Dean said students are not allowed to use a calculator on these first exams, which could mess students up.

“They’re so used to the calculator that it takes awhile to get acclimated to doing real arithmetic,” he said. “The second test is a better indicator for how they’ll do in the math course, as a whole.”

Despite the predicted positive percentages, Kamal Adhikari, a teacher’s assistant in Intro to Contemporary Mathematics, said some students are prepared for the higher-level math courses, but some enter the classroom unprepared.

“Some of them don’t know how to get the sum of two fractions,” he said. “Some of them still don’t know their high school mathematics. That makes it difficult for us to help them understand.”

Students’ opinions differ on the test’s difficulty.

Devon Richardson, a freshman from Chicago studying physical therapy, said the test was fairly difficult because he didn’t take any math classes his senior year in high school. The no-calculator policy heightened the difficulty, he said.

Kurtis Siemsen, a freshman from Belvidere studying forestry, said the test wasn’t really hard.

“You either know it or you don’t,” Siemsen said.


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About Karsten Burgstahler

Karsten Burgstahler can be reached at or 536-3311 ext.255.

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