As part of my research on remediation at community colleges in New Jersey I took the Accuplacer placement test in language arts and math required of all incoming degree-seeking students.

It’s been a long time since I took a standardized test, and I thought the experience would provide valuable insight into the remediation process. It did.

Since the great majority of students do not review for the test, neither did I.

Here’s what happened:

“PEMDAS” the voice said over the phone. “Just remember PEMDAS.”

“I don’t,” I said to my daughter, who was gamely trying to reassure me that I would do fine on the Accuplacer test I was taking in two hours.

“Sure you do,” she said, far more confident of my math skills than I am. “It’s the order in which you do an equation – parentheses, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, subtraction.”

A tiny little spark flickered in the back of my brain: Please excuse my dear Aunt Sally. PEMDAS.  I used to know this. A loooong time ago. In high school.

Atlantic Cape Community College testing coordinator Chris Gamboa meets me at the testing center and reviews the test procedure. The essay is timed at one hour. I can take as long as I need on the rest of the test and can expect to spend two to three hours.

The entire test is online. The introduction offers optional tutorials on such basic skills as how to use a mouse and keyboard. I skim past them to the first task, the essay.

The assigned topic is privacy rights. A score of at least 6 out of 8 will automatically pass me to the math section. I want to experience the entire test, so I write a short, sloppy essay and up pops the rest of the language arts test. One section involves reading paragraphs and answering questions to determine reading comprehension. The next is editing 20 sentences. No problem for someone who writes for a living.

Next is math. There are two sections of 17 and 12 questions. The test is adaptive, so the questions I get are influenced by my answers.  

The arithmetic section covers fractions, percentages, nothing I can’t handle. But because each problem seems to address a different skill, it does get tiring. Calculators are not allowed unless the tiny calculator pops up on the computer screen. It’s unfamiliar and awkward to use, so I stick with scrap paper.

Finally the algebra test arrives. I’ve been testing for two hours, and frankly, could use a break. I forge ahead and at first it’s not too bad. The PEMDAS reminder helps.

I muddle along until the negative numbers arrive. I remember that at some point a negative number becomes positive, but I can’t remember when. The answer choices include both, so I resort to guessing.

The problems get more complex and I get a tension headache. I struggle to the end and the printer spits out my results.

My sloppy essay scored a 4, so even though I aced the rest of the language arts test, I am still placed in a remedial English class, albeit the higher level course.

I also do fine on the arithmetic test, but miss the passing score in algebra, which places me in the higher level remedial math course. Later, when I sit in on a remedial algebra class, I can easily see where I went wrong. A couple of review sessions probably would have refreshed my skills enough to make the Accuplacer passing score.

Since I have technically placed in two remedial courses, the printout also recommends I take the College Skills course, which offers practice in note-taking, text reading and writing papers.

My three remedial courses would cost about $1,200 at ACCC, and none would count toward an associate’s degree. For a $10 fee I could retake the Accuplacer, but must wait at least 30 days.