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Exam evaluates students’ ability in core subjects

In high school, students are always faced with standardized testing that’s used to compare school districts and can affect how much federal funding schools receive. In order to measure the effectiveness of courses, the university administers a proficiency exam once students in a four-year degree earn 48 credits and two-year degree students have 32. The exam was part of a policy passed by the South Dakota Board of Regents. The exam began in Spring 1998.

“The purpose of the policy was to demonstrate to people who pay for higher education, such as legislators, that students are actually learning while they’re in college,” Director of Communications for the Board of Regents Janelle Toman said. “It’s a way to quantify learning and demonstrate proficiency in the basic subjects.”

USD’s Director of Academic Evaluation and Assessment Dale Pietrzak said the exam also allows the university to compare itself to other institutions.

“We can use our scores to ensure that there isn’t anything leading to grade inflation,” Pietrzak said. “We can get an idea of how we compare and what areas we’re excelling in and what areas we need to work on.
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Pietrzak said the exam is offered once a semester and there are usually 800 to 900 first-time test takers at each exam.

The proficiency exam tests students’ abilities in four areas including math, science reasoning, reading and writing skills. Toman said those areas are considered the basic things students need to take regardless of their major and usually take them within their first two years of school.

Sophomore Jacob Parsons was required to take the proficiency exam a few weeks ago.

“Having to take the test upset me because I had to miss four classes to take it,” Parsons said. “It could have been passed by a middle schooler.”

The test is scored and there is a certain percent students must achieve in order to pass the exam. Toman said students are allowed to retake the area they failed two more times, but they don’t have to retake the entire exam.

“It’s a high-stakes test in the way that if a student doesn’t pass by the third time, they can’t continue on in their college career,” Toman said. “But that doesn’t happen very often.”

Accommodations are offered to students who have demonstrated a disability, Toman said, and the university will work with students to help them practice skills before taking the exam again.

Although the four-hour test isn’t particularly loved by the students taking it, Pietrzak said there are many states moving toward the form of standardized testing.

“South Dakota was advanced in its decision to require students to take the exam,” Pietrzak said. “There are several hundred schools that use the same form of the test.”

The test is provided by the American College Testing (ACT), the same company that prepares one of the pre-college examinations. While the proficiency exam is meant to measure USD’s success in continuing education, Pietrzak said it needs to be similar to ones offered at other schools in order to serve its purpose.

“Subjects don’t vary across schools,” Pietrzak said. “We’d lose the ability to compare nationally if we had the exam specifically tailored to our university. We should, however, supplement other measurements that aren’t globally designed as well.”

Pietrzak said the difficulty level of the test stays the same year to year, but there is a constant evaluation of the test to make sure it’s meeting expectations.

“It appears to be doing what we intended and has been successful in its time,” Pietrzak said. “It’s not 100 percent popular, but it helps to evaluate what we’re doing here at USD.”

But Parsons said there needs to be some sort of adjustment made to the test to accurately measure students’ abilities.

“I think if they continue the test, they should make it more relevant to college courses, rather than things we’ve already learned,” Parsons said. “But I think it’s still a waste of time. Students’ success is reflected in their grades — if they’re passing, it shows they’re putting in the effort and if they’re not, they’ll get kicked out for grades anyway.”

Reach reporter Cassie Bartlett at [email protected].