New math placement program aims to boost student success

math signs

A new math placement program is being implemented at NAU this fall to match students with courses that are better aligned with their existing knowledge and skills as a way to improve their success.

NAU has historically used students’ ACT and SAT scores to place them into math and statistics courses, but according to Janet McShane, chair of Mathematics and Statistics, “These scores are not good indicators of student success in mathematics. We are hoping that ALEKS will be a better predictor.”

The NAU ALEKS placement test—which stands for Assessment and Learning in Knowledge Spaces—is designed to measure students’ current knowledge of prerequisite math content and identify the specific math course appropriate for each student.

McShane said the test is “adaptive,” meaning that if a student answers a question correctly the test directs them to subsequent questions in a different way than if the student answers that question incorrectly.

“This adaptability helps to determine where each student has strengths and weaknesses to better place them into appropriate math courses,” she said. Through better placement, she added, students should achieve greater success because their classes will be better suited to their specific knowledge sets.

“Ideally, we want to get students in the courses they need—courses that take them from where they currently are in terms of knowledge and skills and moves them forward,” McShane said.

While it may be clear that students are certain to fail if they are placed into a math class for which they don’t have the necessary background knowledge, Katie Louchart, NAU’s mathematics placement coordinator said the opposite also is true: Students are less likely to succeed when a class holds no challenge for them.

“Our goal is to achieve the proverbial ‘Goldilocks effect,’” she said. “We’d like students to take math classes that are ‘just right.’”

To do that, the ALEKS testing system relies on several key features that were lacking in the former SAT/ACT score-based system. For one, students will take ALEKS as they finish their senior year of high school rather than during their junior year, which is when they typically take the SAT or ACT. This gives them test results that reflect any math courses they have taken during their senior year or any knowledge they may have lost if they haven’t taken math during that time.

The University of Arizona, Arizona State University and the Maricopa Community College District are all using ALEKS for their mathematics placement, although the test is customized to course offerings at each school. NAU is working with these schools to develop a common customization of the ALEKS test, so students can use their ALEKS math placement test results at any of the schools