Penn State pioneers online placement tests

September 16, 2003

University Park, Pa. -- Penn State's Office of Undergraduate Education pioneered new territory this summer as nearly 15,000 students completed their placement testing for chemistry, English and math online without ever setting foot on campus.

"Penn State's online approach to placement is more extensive than any other large university's," said Janis Jacobs, vice provost for Undergraduate Education and International Programs. The entire Penn State 2003 incoming class, including international students, out-of-state students and students entering each of the campus college locations, logged on from home computers or other off-site locations. Students without access to a home computer were offered computer lab options at the Penn State campus closest to their home.

"The savings in time, administrative expense, and travel expense are impressive," Jacobs said, "but I am more intrigued by what this means for improving the academic advising and feedback that students receive as they begin their Penn State careers."

Online testing has major implications for advising; the introduction of the University's academic integrity expectations; the potential to use early diagnostics to increase student preparedness for college-level instruction; and the efficient use of University resources and student time, according to Jeremy Cohen, associate vice provost for undergraduate education. Cohen has overseen the three-year initiative to move placement testing from high stakes, on-campus paper and pencil sessions proctored by staff, to a low-stakes, online environment.

The project has drawn on testing, assessment, and technical expertise from the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence, the departments of math, English and chemistry, Information Technology Services and the Division of Undergraduate Studies (DUS), which has administered on-campus placement testing each year as an element of the First Year Testing, Counseling and Advising Program (FTCAP). The content of the tests themselves is the responsibility of the departments of chemistry, English and math.

"There is reason to believe that online testing alters the attitudes of students in a very positive way," said Eric White, executive director of DUS. "It exchanges the anxiety of high-stakes, proctored testing for more productive reflection on learning and supports the goal of placement advising as an opportunity for students to take responsibility for their own education, " White said. "For the first time, students are concentrating on doing their best more than test anxiety," White said. Feedback from students suggests they are in fact very comfortable with online testing.

But does the switch from proctored tests to online testing in which students are on the honor system encourage cheating?

"Just the opposite," Cohen said. "Placement testing is among the first substantive contacts new students have with Penn State. At the front end of the exam is an explanation of academic integrity and an invitation to be a member of a community that takes an individual's integrity seriously." Cohen believes the invitation is not lost on the students.

"It is really nice to be trusted," one student told a DUS adviser. Even so, a battery of statistical crosschecks enable testing administrators to look for indications of dishonesty. Only a handful have emerged.

"Placement testing on the honor system recognizes that the purpose of the battery of exams is diagnostic, rather than high-stakes evaluation for a grade or a course credit," Cohen said. "The only reward for a student who violates academic integrity on the exams is placement into a class she or he isn't ready for, and that's no reward."

What's next? Early, online diagnostic feedback to enable students to brush up on weak areas through local or online courses and tutorials before entering their first year of university study; individualized adaptive testing that more accurately probes a students strengths and weaknesses; and increasingly accurate and helpful data for advising are on the horizon, Cohen said.

"The successful completion of the online phase is really just the first step in Penn State's efforts to improve student success in college," said Renatta Engel, associate vice provost of the Schreyer Institute for Excellence in Teaching, which has responsibility for the assessment of online testing efficacy.

"An important goal is to start students on a path of reflection about their own learning. The online testing is a good start. Next, we will work with math, chemistry, English and perhaps others to develop a testing system that provides students with early feedback on their preparedness in the foundation courses — all before embarking on their formal college studies, " she said.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated March 20, 2009