Students Struggle With Math Placement Exams

Tri-Co a capella group Chaverim sings carols to the gathering crowd
Tri-Co a capella group Chaverim sings carols to the gathering crowd

Olivia Edwards ’14 knew she wanted to major in biology when she came to college. In order to do that, Edwards needs to take some math. “It’s required for my major,” she said.

So, as an incoming student, Edwards took the math placement test. And while she does not remember exactly how well she did, she knows the end result. “When I actually attempted to take a class, they told me I needed to be remediated.”

Based on her score, Swarthmore prohibited Edwards from taking a math course that allows for further work in the department or is required by other majors. She is not the only student who has had difficulty with the math placement process. “I could not take any math classes here,” said Michael Wheeler ’16, who also failed to score high enough on his placement test to take Math 15, Elementary Single-Variable Calculus.

Phillip Everson, the math professor in charge of placement, says the department is aware that this happens. “If they don’t do well enough on the readiness test, then we require them to do something first,” he said.

Kaitlyn Litwinetz, the academic support coordinator for the math department, agreed, saying the department, in general, is strict about not allowing students they consider unqualified to take calculus. “In the last couple years, the professors have really cracked down on not letting students into Math 15 who aren’t prepared to take it,” she said.

For some students, like Edwards, the lack of a precalculus course has made life more difficult. “It kind of sucked,” said Edwards, who was told she needed to do review work over the summer and then re-take the exam to enroll in Math 15. But that summer, she was occupied by an internship. Hence, Edwards felt she did not have the time to adequately prepare.  “I had to move around my whole schedule because of not taking it,” she said.

But Everson feels the process is fair and accommodating. “If they aren’t happy with it, they come and talk to us,” he said. He pointed out that the department offers review materials, and in 2008, hired Litwinetz to help people in exactly that situation.

“I reach out to students,” said Litwinetz. “People that don’t really place into Math 15 could come talk to me,” she said. Litwinetz said she distributes review material to students who need assistance in preparing for math.

Litwinetz, like Everson, argued the department was accommodating, and that in spite of strict standards of admittance to Math 15, professors were willing to accept students who truly needed to take the course. “I think the professors would kind of work with them and let them take it,” she said.

Indeed, even some students barred from taking math are not too disappointed. “I did not plan on taking any math classes here,” said Wheeler, who added he felt the problem was not widespread. “I have a feeling that the number of people for which this is actually a reality for it is incredibly low,” he said.

Edwards agreed. “I knew I was going to be a bio major when I came to this school, so it was not enough to dissuade me,” she said.

Still, students felt the system could use improvement. “It’s a little bit of a hit to the self esteem,” said Lauren Mirzakhali ’15, who, like Wheeler and Edwards, was ineligible for Math 15.

Wheeler felt that the system was not as flexible as Everson made it out to be. “It was very dismissive,” said Wheeler. “It was very much like, ‘Figure this out on your own, or it’s a no.’”

Some students said they thought the school should have a precalculus course they could do during the semester instead of as summer work. Even Litwinetz felt it might not be a bad idea. “I do think there are some students who would benefit from it,” she said, adding that she thought it might be good for the school to offer a summertime, “no credit,” course.

However, Everson said that there was only so much the department could do with its resources. For example, he said that while the math department would like to offer a precalculus course, it did not have the means. “We just don’t have the possibility of offering a preparatory course for Math 15. We don’t have the staffing,” he said.

But students seem to understand those issues and the lack of need. “It just seems a little counterproductive to start something that you’d already be behind in,” said Mirzakhali.

Wheeler agreed. “I can only imagine there are a handful of people here who are as bad at math as I am.”

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