How do you place students into calculus courses?
August 29, 2011 11:30 AM   Subscribe

Attention math teachers: what processes does your college/university use for placement into Calculus courses?

I teach at a mid-sized open-admissions research university in the US; total student body is about 6000 (about 1100 first-year students).

Currently, we use Accuplacer to place students anywhere from developmental arithmetic into Calculus I, but we have no method to accurately place students into Calc I vs Calc II vs Calc III (should we be so lucky) except if they've gotten adequate scores on an AP test. Many of our students who start in Calc I have already taken Calculus in high school; some of them probably should re-take it at the college level, but probably some shouldn't. (And I'm not sure how good a job Accuplacer does at placing students, either. I don't think we have the data.)

Placing students into Calculus should be a reasonably solved problem. What do folks use? I've heard of the MAA-sponsered one that uses MapleTA; is it any good? (We're not a Maple campus, particularly.) An out-of-the-box solution would be easier than having to roll my own. Computer-administered/graded placement tests would be ideal, but ideally not multiple-choice. (although that may be the option.)
posted by leahwrenn to Education (6 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
It seems like the AP test should be a pretty good indicator.

At my school, a 5 on the AB/BC test got you out of a quarter of math, a 3 or a 4 put you in the normal classes. Anything less (or no score) and you had to take college calculus over the summer to be admitted in the fall.

This seems like the exact kind of test you would want to check in on them. The challenge is mapping scores to your classes (which is easier than making a test from scratch I would think).

If students have not taken the test but wish to place, give them a retired test, there are plenty to be had out there (my AP teacher in high school had access to them for sure). Part of it is multiple choice and computer gradable and part of it is not...
posted by milqman at 12:46 PM on August 29, 2011

As far as I know, ours were written in-house at some point (and the computerised). There's a 'college algebra' one and a 'calculus' one. (I've never seen them. I gathered this from google and finding the website where undergrads are supposed to log in to take the placement tests.) They don't use the placement test for students who have taken an AP calculus exam. I think most of the students who've taken calculus before are being placed by the AP exam. (I think using AP scores for placement is fairly successful. I want to say the MAA tracked this at some point, but I can't find the articles. I'm not sure how successful the actual placement tests are.)

Berkeley has an online placement test if you wish to play with it and information for choosing a first course. It doesn't place people into anything below pre-calculus, though. However, I don't know that anyone actually uses this placement test. (I don't think anyone I knew did. It didn't apply in my situation ) It's certainly not required.

I wonder if the easiest and perhaps best thing to do would be to rig up a placement test using old final exams from the various courses, choosing, I don't know, five of the harder questions from each course's exam (but excluding the questions that turned out to be disasters, if you have that information). That might get you something that works for everything up to calculus and then you can either do separate calculus placement exams or rely on AP scores. (Are you likely to have many students who didn't take AP Calculus, but should skip a semester or more of calculus?)
posted by hoyland at 1:09 PM on August 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Sorry, I wasn't clear. I am not worried about placing students who actually took an AP test. I am concerned about placing students who have had some calculus in high school but did not take an AP test.

In particular, I am especially interested in determining which students who claim to have passed a year of high school calculus but who did not take an AP test should be placed into Calculus II, and which should retake Calculus I (and, conceivably, who really need to retake precalculus---it happens).
posted by leahwrenn at 1:43 PM on August 29, 2011

UVM requires students to take a placement test that, I believe, was written inhouse and computerized with something called WebAssign. I know nothing about it, but based on my memory of it from a few years ago, it used steadily more difficult questions, and went beyond the trig stuff in that Berkeley link. It included integrals and stuff that (after taking Calc 2) I still don't recognize. The results are some sort of number. They actually don't let you register for a class below the number you test into, but they do allow you to register up if you feel you can handle it or whatever. The link (though you can't take the test without being a student, I think) is

Perhaps email one of the professors in the dept?
posted by papayaninja at 2:46 PM on August 29, 2011

My very large university used to conduct their own placement test through the Math department but now uses a test through ALEKS. I'm not sure if it's customized or right out of the box.
posted by Squeak Attack at 3:10 PM on August 29, 2011

My school had three Calculus courses (at least, three that all the science majors had to take.) If you got a 4 or 5 on the B/C test you could skip the first and second classes. If you scored at the highest level of the placement test, you were put into the first one. There were something like 16 levels you could test into, ranging from seriously developmental (they reviewed single-digit arithmetic) to college algebra & trigonometry.

Then, if the student wanted to move up beyond that placement they just gave them a modified version of the comprehensive final exam for each course they wanted to skip. You could get out of all three main Calc classes plus the fourth class (which almost no one needed) with this kind of testing. I knew a few kids who just got out of the three main classes that way.

The website that explains all of this is here. I personally took precalc in high school, got a 610 Math on the SAT, but decided to take the accelerated algebra/trig courses rather than risk bombing out in the first Calculus class. This was an experience shared by several hundred other freshmen that quarter.
posted by SMPA at 4:47 PM on August 29, 2011

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