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February 2003 Issue

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Do College Reading Placement Tests Measure College Reading Skills?

By Gary K. Probst


College reading placement tests play an important role in placement of students in most colleges. These tests can determine if a person is accepted into a college, not permitted to take certain courses, or is required to take a reading and study skills class. The terms used to describe the reading skills measured by these placement tests are very  general impressive sounding cognitive terms. However, the test manual that comes with these tests contains a large amount of statistical information that tells very little about the exact reading skills measured by these tests.

What is the purpose of this article?

It is the purpose of this article to describe the exact reading skills measured by the following tests:

  1. Accuplacer Reading Test
  2. Nelson-Denny Reading test
  3. Regent's Testing Program Reading Test of the University of Georgia
  4. Texas Academic Skills Program (TASP®) Reading Test.

From the analysis of the skills on college reading placement tests the following will be shown:

  1. Some placement tests do not measure reading skills required for college success.
  2. Different placement tests measure different reading skills.
  3. Suggestions on how to prepare for a college reading placement test are of no value.
  4. College reading placement tests do not measure the reading skills taught in college reading classes.

This article will be in two parts. Part 1 will describe two reading placement tests that do not measure college reading skills. Part 2 will
describe two reading placement tests that do measure college reading skills.

Before selecting a test to determine if a student has college reading skills, it is necessary to determine what are the reading requirements of a college course. The reading requirements of a college course I gave in an earlier article titled "What is the Omphalos of Your College Reading and Study Skills Course?" This article can be found at:

   What is the Omphalos of Your College Reading and Study Skills Course?

  1. Read one or more textbooks with over 500 pages of information.
  2. Read, on short notice, outside reading assignment.
  3. Learn between 400 and 1500 new vocabulary terms.
  4. Recognize, for each new term introduced, the following:
    1. examples not given in the textbook

    2. cause and effect

    3. similarities and differences from other terms that share the same classification

  5. Know the study skills that enable one to learn information in the most effective and efficient manner.
  6. Know how to predict the different types of test questions that are used to measure knowledge of the facts, concepts, and principles given in a college course.
  7. Know which facts must be memorized and which facts can be looked up in reference material.
  8. Know how to organize and condense the information in a textbook chapter into an outline that can be used for review.
  9. Know how to develop a study or review system that will identify what information is learned and what information needs additional review.  It is a waste of time to study or review information learned.

Keeping these reading requirements in mind, the question to ask is, "Are these reading requirements measured by college reading placement tests?"

Taxonomy of Cognitive Skills

In order to perform an assessment of what skills are measured by a reading test, there must be a taxonomy of cognitive/reading skills. There are several taxonomies of cognitive skills published and given as solutions to writing objectives and test questions. Probably the most famous is Bloom's taxonomy developed in 1956. However, this taxonomy as well as the others does not describe the specific cognitive skills that are required on each level. While these taxonomies are often used to describe learning objectives, they are so general that they are of no use.

Many years ago I developed and published a taxonomy of cognitive skills to be used in instructional design by translating the cognitive
skills found of each of the cognitive levels given by Bruner, Gagne, Guilford, Klausmeier, Piaget and Taba. These cognitive skills were placed into a hierarchical order of four cognitive levels that can be identified and measured.

The taxonomy's four cognitive levels are facts, concepts, principles and problem solving. As one moves to the higher cognitive level, it becomes increasingly more difficult to perform the cognitive skills. This is because of the following two reasons:

  1. More prerequisite or background information must be known in order to understand the information.
  2. More connections or relationships must be found and identified between items of information.

By using this taxonomy, it is possible to identify the specific reading skills measured by a reading test.

Accuplacer Reading Test.

The Accuplacer tests are widely used in colleges for student placement. The Accuplacer reading tests purports to measure two reading skills. Narrative questions are given that required developing a topic sentence for a passage of three sentences. Sentence relationship questions are given that have two underlined sentences are followed by a question or statement about them.  The question for each underlined sentence pair asks how the second sentence is connected or related to the first sentence as an example, cause, effect, comparison or contrast.

Many colleges that require the Accuplacer Reading Test have directions on their websites on how to prepare to take this test. Two examples are given from college websites that are similar to many I found.

Example 1: http://www.frc.mass.edu/casa/accuread.htm

Preparing for the Accuplacer Reading Test

This Reading Comprehension test would be better named THE TEST OF CRITICAL THINKING SKILLS. It does not test your ability to read as much as it tests your ability to UNDERSTAND AND APPLY the information you read.

All paragraphs on the Accuplacer Reading Comprehension test are short, usually not more than 4 sentences. However, there is plenty of information in those few sentences for you to analyze. Most questions ask you to either:

1.     Determine the MAIN IDEA;

2.     Make an INFERENCE based on the information in the paragraph; or

3.     Judge the relationship between 2 separate sentences.

One way to prepare is to read newspapers, magazines, or books that are in your home.  When you have finished a paragraph or an article ask yourself “what is the point?” If you do not understand, then try to examine individual paragraphs more closely. Do not get hung up on individual words that you may not know – look at the big picture.

From the information you read, what conclusions can you draw? If you read that it was cold when I shoveled my driveway, you might conclude that there was snow on the ground.

After reading this passage, I question the following information:

1. Does the suggestion to read newspapers, etc in your home and then asking yourself, "What is the point? Really prepare your to take this test or prepare a person to take a test that measures the reading skills required in college courses?

2. Is knowing there is snow on the ground when shoveling a driveway an inference required of a three year old or a college student?

Example 2:


Read the following selections and then select the 2 inferences in the reading selection that can be made based on the information in the selection:

For a hundred years, students at the small high school in Purdy, Mo., had been forbidden to hold dances at school. But twenty-one seniors and their parents brought that tradition to an end when they sued the school board and won. A U.S. District Court judge called the ban on dances unconstitutional.

  1. The local junior high still forbids dances at the school.
  2. The Purdy School Board will appeal the ruling before the Supreme Court.
  3. It is legal to sue the school board.
  4. Purdy is the only town in which school dances had been forbidden.
  5. Students can influence a school's policies.

The correct answers given are C and E.

After reading this information, I would ask the following questions:

  1. Is the information in this passage similar to what a student is required to read in college?
  2. Is this really an inference question?

For college placement the Accuplacer reading test has no passages to read.  The test mainly asks a student to tell the connection or relationship between the second sentence to the first sentence. A few questions are given that require recognizing what would be a topic sentence for three sentences. The questions on the Accuplacer are not the type of questions one normally finds on a reading test or a college test. Therefore, the questions' specific cognitive level and cognitive skill cannot be identified. It appears the questions range from an easy to difficult principle level.

The Nelson-Denny Reading Test, Forms E and F, published in 1981

So as not to violate test security the number of the specific question on each cognitive level is not given. An analysis of this test reveals number of questions on the following cognitive skills: 


Form E

Form F

 1.00  Facts



   1.10 Specific Fact



   1. 20 Factual Statement



       1.21  Definition



       1.22  Example



       1.23  Explanation



       1.24  Comparison



       1.25  Contrast



       1.26  Cause



       1.27  Effect






 2.00 Concepts



    2.10 Topic



        2.11 in a topic sentence



        2.12 develop topic sentence



        2.13 emphasized topic



        2.14 not emphasized topic



    2.20 Details



       2.21 supporting



       2.22 sequential



       2.23 not supporting



       2.24 same as



       2.25 emphasized



       2.26 not emphasized






 3.0 Principles



    3.1 Definition



    3.2 Example



    3.3 Explanation



    3.4 Comparison



    3.5 Contrast



    3.6 Cause



    3.7 Effect



Fifty percent of the questions on the Nelson-Denny test measure the ability to read to locate a fact. Only twenty percent of the questions measure reading on the principle level. The reading selections are short passages consisting of one or two paragraphs. Therefore, the reading skill measured by these tests is scanning for a fact.

Next month Part 2 of this article will be given.


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