To date, I have worked as a private math tutor, test preparation specialist, 6th grade math teacher, and online video course creator. Part of my duties in these various positions have led me to counsel students who are transitioning to new middle schools, high schools, and colleges. The question that I have received over and over from students and parents is this: should one prepare for a math placement test? It is an interesting question since most folks naturally assume that everyone should study before an exam. So why the confusion? Because most schools tell new students not to prepare for placement tests. The rationale is that placement tests are merely meant to gauge current math skills, and preparation for these tests might muddy the waters. Moreover, there is no passing or failing; these tests will simply be used to determine what level of math a student will enter when school begins. For example, a new 7th grader may either enter pre-algebra, algebra, or geometry based on their placement test results. So, as it stands, most teachers and counselors seem to be advising students to go into these tests without preparation. Do I agree? Of course not, and I will explain why in six simple reasons.
Caveat: I only recommend preparing for placement tests when the desire to do so comes intrinsically from the student. Forcing the issue means the student is not mentally or emotionally prepared to work hard, and that can be a problem if placed into a high math group. If, however, the student is pushing for the preparation, there is no need to fear. Their desire to perform well will carry them. I am in support of introducing the idea to a student, but if they do not latch onto the concept, then my recommendation is to let them be.
Reason 1: It’s easy to forget nuances and lose points even when math fluency and comprehension are strong
Who out there remembers the quadratic formula in its entirety? Who recalls precisely how to take the derivative of sin(x)? Who can still solve a system of linear equations? As an adult who is far removed from the study of mathematics, my guess is that you have completely forgotten all of these protocols and procedures. But guess what… even if you’ve only had a month or two away from these concepts, chances are that you’ve forgotten parts of these processes. Perhaps you remember the bulk of the quadratic formula, but you somehow thought the denominator was 2 instead of 2a. Or maybe you confused the derivative of sin(x) with the derivative of cos(x).
My point is this: it is very easy to forget a small component of these formulas and procedures, even when your comprehension at one time was flawless. Is it then fair or accurate for a multiple choice math placement test to penalize a student for a series of minor mishaps? Absolutely not. Aside from being fair, it is inaccurate. Accordingly, brushing up on these concepts is a must. Just to be clear, I’m not advocating a full on multi-week cram session where you embark upon a quest to learn massive amounts of new information. What I do recommend, however, is a thorough review of all the concepts you learned in the previous year. It will not misrepresent your abilities; to the contrary, it will let your true math prowess shine.
Reason 2: Math knowledge can be substantially ramped up in a relatively short period of time
Math is not like reading. Becoming a solid reader takes years of practice and devotion because it is such a highly complex process. While math can be highly complex as well, middle school and high school mathematics is comprised of a series of relatively simple operations. When I say simple, I do not mean math is easy. What I mean is that much of the individual math concepts taught at these levels can be understood and mastered in a relatively short period of time. It’s the reason why students preparing for standardized tests routinely see a much larger jump in math scores than verbal scores after preparing for a few months. As such, engaging in some focused practice and review in a short period of time can have a significant impact on one’s ability on a math placement test. Translation: the juice is definitely worth the squeeze.
Reason 3: It is very unlikely that you can perform beyond your abilities on a placement test (i.e. if you can get it right on the placement test, you most likely GET IT)
So many math education websites state that you should not prepare for placement tests because you want to be in an appropriate math class for your knowledge and ability level. Well, since final exams are meant to gauge a student’s understanding of class material, should students forego preparation for final exams as well? What about standardized tests? Don’t we want students to be placed at a university that is appropriate for their skill level? The point is that preparation is part and parcel of the education process, and how hard a student is willing to prepare is also indicative of their ability to succeed through perseverance. Moreover, if a student understands a concept to the point where they can provide a correct answer on a placement test, they GET IT. I do, however, concede that students should refrain from guessing on placement tests. That would be counterproductive. Educated guesses make sense, but blind guesses would serve no purpose in assessing placement.
Reason 4: You can always move backwards, but you usually can’t move forward
Let’s play out the worst case scenario of acing a math placement test. Assume that a student going into 7th grade crushes the assessment and is moved into geometry, a very advanced math class for 7th grade. Let’s also assume that the student is now experiencing great trepidation about geometry and feels as though algebra would be a better fit. The parents concur. Is it feasible to move the child from geometry backwards to algebra? Of course! Schools are extremely amenable to moving a student backwards if both the parents and student feel that such placement is appropriate. Going the other way, however, is extremely difficult, especially with prestigious college preparatory institutions. Schools in the upper echelon of academia can be rigid with respect to placement results. I’ve seen many students fall victim to these systems only to end up facing boredom all year long. In sum, shoot for the stars so that you have options.
Reason 5: If you have a tutor, you will be more than equipped to iron out any difficulties that may arise in a challenging math class
For students lucky enough to have access to outside help, there is nothing to fear. Whether it’s a private tutor, parent, or teacher who volunteers after school, having access to extra help should alleviate any stress about being placed in an advanced math class. Any concepts that are troubling can be cleared up in a very short period of time when personalized help is available.
Reason 6: It is better to busy than be bored
Counselors constantly warn students of the dangers of being placed in a higher than appropriate math class. They admonish parents and students alike of how high level math classes can leave unprepared students feeling overwhelmed or anxious. But what about the alternative? What about the dangers of being bored? Boredom can destroy a child’s love for mathematics. Stagnation is a recipe for indifference. Moreover, the likelihood that a child will be completely overwhelmed with no ability to catch up is very small if the child possesses intrinsic motivation. Again, this entire article is premised on the fact that a child is preparing for a placement test because of his own desire. If a student indeed wants to prepare, they will likely embrace whatever challenge may come their way. So, it is with no hesitation or second thought that I leave you with this final recommendation: if a student wishes to prepare for a math placement test, by all means, let him do so.
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