David Barone, Math Department Chair at Bellarmine College Preparatory, shares how his school experimented with using a web-based assessment technology for efficient math placement. Read the results.
Among the most important duties of the math department chair at Bellarmine is to oversee the math testing and placement of incoming freshmen. I was fortunate to have inherited a very professional testing process, thanks to the work of the chairs before me. Annually, the process managed the math transition of 420 incoming freshmen coming from over 100 feeder schools and a very wide range of math programs. Our assessments were carefully-designed multiple choice exams. The testing was done on campus, on a selected afternoon in the spring, in a well-organized manner. And we had years of reliable data on which to base our placement decisions.
And yet, every year, we weathered a storm of parent frustration. I received dozens of parent emails and phone calls contesting our placement decisions, questioning the validity of our exam, or claiming the test score was inaccurate because their son just had a bad day. At first, I dutifully tried to address each objection. But with each additional conversation, I began to think more and more that perhaps the parents had a point. After all, they had years of data measuring their son’s math proficiency, and I was countering that with the results from one multiple choice test.
After grumbling about the problem for a while, I decided to search for alternative solutions. It occurred to me that universities face the same math placement challenges that we do…even more so in fact. As it turns out, many universities across the country have turned to the same solution: an online math assessment tool called ALEKS.
ALEKS is a web-based math assessment technology. It is adaptive, meaning each question is selected based on the student’s answer to the previous question, and it uses algorithms to hone in on a student’s level of understanding. It is not a multiple choice test and the adaptive nature of the test means no two exams are alike. Both student and teacher see the results of the assessment immediately, and the data are presented in the form of a pie chart with useful subcategories to help diagnose areas of strength and weakness. ALEKS uses the data to generate practice problems for the student and it tracks the student’s progress as she demonstrates fluency in new topics.
Last spring, we decided to use ALEKS in the same way the universities were using it. Specifically, we gave each incoming freshman access to ALEKS and we allowed him three attempts at an assessment, completed at home, over a five-week period. We used his highest score as the basis for placement. The assessments were not timed, and students were not required to complete each assessment in one sitting. The ALEKS courses can be customized so we matched the assessment content with our curriculum. We also had a number of our current students take the assessments to vet them and to calibrate our cutoffs for student advancement.
Trusting students to take the assessments honestly without a proctor was admittedly a leap of faith, especially in Silicon Valley, where the pressure to advance in math is intense. We took time to explain to students and parents why an accurate placement is an essential starting point for a successful high school math career. We explained how an inaccurate placement could harm the student by putting him into a course for which his is not prepared. We emphasized that the best placement is the right placement, and not the most advanced one.
In addition, there are two key benefits of the ALEKS testing that resonate with everyone and provide motivation for making it work. The first is that offering multiple assessment opportunities with ALEKS helps to diminish the “performance” aspect of proficiency testing. The “make-or-break” stress of a single testing event often gets in the way of a student demonstrating what he knows.
The second benefit is that ALEKS transforms a purely summative testing experience into one that’s much more formative. And in doing so, it encourages a growth mindset in students. If the student receives an assessment score that is lower than he would like, then he has an opportunity to act on the feedback. He can practice with ALEKS and brush up on areas of weakness, and then try the assessment again. Some students even shared their results with their middle school teachers, who helped the students improve their understanding of specific topics in preparation for the second and third chances at the assessment.
The formative benefits extend beyond the students. At the end of the testing period, we had a wealth of data regarding the math knowledge of our incoming freshmen. In addition to course placement, we used the data to identify students who could benefit most from an algebra readiness workshop over the summer. And during the beginning weeks of the school year, our teachers and counselors used the data to help diagnose the needs of struggling students.
The student response to the ALEKS testing was very encouraging. Many scores improved from one assessment to the next. More students tested out of algebra 1.
The biggest difference we noticed with the new process was a reduction in the number of parents who contested their son’s placement. Whereas in prior years we typically received dozens of calls and emails from parents contesting placement, with the ALEKS testing we received three. And in each of those three cases, we had plenty of assessment data on which to base a constructive conversation.
Overall, our placement decisions this year have held up well. We’ve had very few freshmen moving between math classes, which has given us the confidence to use ALEKS again this year for math placement. However, it’s important to mention that we don’t plan to use ALEKS as a classroom activity at Bellarmine. We see classroom time as an opportunity for students to engage in mathematical sense-making and problem solving, in the context of discourse with others. This discourse, in turn, provides teachers with rich formative feedback regarding student learning. While we do find ALEKS helpful outside the classroom as a tool for student practice and for assessment of student understanding and procedural fluency, we prefer to use other methodologies in the classroom. (For more on this topic, I recommend the NCTM publication, Principles to Actions, and Stanford professor Jo Boaler’s online course, “How to Learn Math.”)
Having said that, the ALEKS model has brought real benefits. By reducing the pressure of exam performance and delivering detailed formative feedback, ALEKS has helped us build an assessment model for math placement that is a clear improvement over the traditional multiple-choice exams we used before. But perhaps the most compelling aspect of the ALEKS model is the way it has challenged us to think differently about assessment in general. Our assessments reflect what we value. This applies not only to the content, but also to the form of the assessment itself. And if we want our students to have a growth mindset, to value formative feedback, and to respond to setbacks by trying again, then whenever possible we should design assessment models that support our students accordingly.