Kareem Spence, 24, of Pleasantville, is a student at Atlantic Cape Community College. Vernon Ogrodnek

The Accuplacer is an online standardized exam in language arts and math. It is used by all 19 community colleges in New Jersey to determine whether students are prepared to do college work.

“It’s to put you in the course that is at your level,” said Jonell Sanchez, director of academic outreach and Accuplacer coordinator for the College Board, which provides the test.

But the test cannot tell the difference between a student who never understood algebra or how to write a persuasive essay, and one whose skills are just a bit rusty. Both may wind up in remedial courses.

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Shena LeBow, 20, of Hammonton was terrified before taking the Accuplacer last year at Atlantic Cape Community College.

“The English was easy, but the math …” she said rolling her eyes. “And you can’t use a calculator for most of it.”

LeBow admits she didn’t pay attention in high school math class and is now paying for it by having to take two remedial courses at ACCC before she can even apply to the nursing program.

Kareem Spence resented his remedial courses and felt he didn’t belong there.

“It was things I already knew,” he said. “I just needed a refresher, not an entire course.”

Spence, 24, of Pleasantville, entered ACCC after a stint in the Army Reserve. He will get his degree in criminal justice in May. But when he started in 2007, he was placed in remedial classes.

“I feel like I wasted a semester,” said Spence, who has made the Dean’s List four out of five semesters and credits family and close friends for keeping him focused rather than discouraged. “It sets you back, mentally, when you go a whole semester and it doesn’t count.”

Unlike the well-known SAT, Accuplacer has no “how to” books lining the shelves at Borders. Many students had never heard of the test, despite its importance to their college future.

In 2008, all of New Jersey’s community colleges agreed to use the Accuplacer and set the same minimum scores for proficiency. Before that, each college set its own standards. A student may be exempted if they have SAT scores of 530 in math and 540 in verbal.

The entire test is online, so students unfamiliar with computers are at a disadvantage before they even start. The test introduction offers optional tutorials on such basic skills as how to use a mouse and keyboard.

The test at ACCC begins with writing an essay on a specified topic. This is the only timed section. Test-takers have one hour to complete it.

Assistant professor Jay Peterson, who teaches developmental English at ACCC, said he assigns an essay on the first day of class to weed out the occasional students who scored poorly on the Accuplacer essay for reasons other than writing ability. Some of his students do not have Internet access or computers at home.

“It’s a safety net to the placement test,” he said.

Sanchez said the online test uses artificial intelligence to score the essays. Hundreds of essays scored by college faculty are fed into the program, which scores new essays based on how similar they are to the scanned essays.

Bob Schaeffer, executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, or FairTest, said there has been little independent research on the Accuplacer, but overall it is a decent test for sorting students by skill level.

He said lack of keyboarding skills is an ongoing problem with online tests, and it would also benefit students if the college provided some opportunity for them to review the subjects before taking the test.

Tatiana Brathwaite, 27, of Atlantic City, thinks if she had been given the chance to review first, she would not have been placed in remedial math.

“You forget it,” she said of algebra. “If I had studied, I would have done better. I would have signed up for a review.”

ACCC has attempted to offer review courses with limited success. Last summer’s two-week math review courses were canceled for lack of enrollment. Brathwaite admitted she might be reluctant to pay for a review course if she wasn’t sure it would be enough to keep her out of the remedial courses.

“If not, I’d be paying twice,” she said.

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