Avalon Potter: Microeconomics placement exam doesn’t benefit all students

Updated: Oct. 6, 2016 at 11:35 a.m.

The economics department added a new policy to the course placement exam in the Principles of Microeconomics course. Although the course has always required a basic math exam in the beginning of the semester, this is the first year in which students don’t have the option to stay in the course if they do not pass the test. Should students fail the test, they can opt to take a remedial course called Econ 1001 before taking microeconomics again another semester, or they may leave the microeconomics course completely to study basic mathematical skills on their own and reenroll in Econ 1011 a later semester.

Admittedly, I am terrible at basic math. Statistics is a breeze for me, but I can’t do long division without a calculator. Like many other international affairs majors, microeconomics is a requirement for my degree. If I wanted to pursue my chosen field, and I did not pass the exam, I would have had no choice but to spend time and money in a lower level course for my first semester and return to Econ 1011 in the spring or try to learn the concepts on the placement exam on my own before trying the course again. It’s understandable the economics department faculty want students to have the best possible foundation in math. However, the current policy holds back students who might be capable of succeeding in Econ 1011 but struggle to recall the basic math skills they may not have used since the eighth grade and probably won’t use in theory-based economics courses.

The Econ 1011 placement exam has about 20 questions and must be completed without using a calculator. Students are given three possible opportunities to pass the exam, and if students don’t pass by the second attempt, they are required to complete an online course called ALEKS, which costs upwards of $30, before taking the exam for a third time.

Students dropped from Econ 1011 will be automatically placed into Econ 1001, a course designed to help students master the concepts presented in the placement exam. But students don’t have to stay in the lower course. These students will have to take the Econ 1011 placement exam upon re-entering the class in the spring.

The economics department has good intentions behind this decision. Students who may not be ready for or feel comfortable in Econ 1011 now have the ability to master necessary skills in Econ 1001. Basic math skills are important for economics. Anthony Yezer, an economics professor, said students who don’t pass the test often don’t succeed in the class.

“In the past, many students dropped Econ 1011 when they failed the placement because passing the placement counted for points in Econ 1011 and 1012, but some stayed in the classes and generally did very poorly,” Yezer said.

But knowing how to divide fractions by hand is hardly necessary when calculators are allowed on all other class exams. The test won’t necessarily determine how well students will do in economics.

And right now students could be trying to pass the exam until the third week of classes: They can take them during the first, second and third weeks, and Econ 1001 began Sept. 26. It may give students a little extra time to study, but it means students do three weeks of work for a class they may have to drop.

Students who genuinely need to work on their math skills will benefit from moving down a level. But other students may not pass the test, too, like those who struggle without a calculator or forgot skills they haven’t used in a while. They may be fully capable of passing Econ 1011, but they are no longer given the choice to try.

Taking away students’ choices is not the way to make them more successful. The economics department should give students the option to stay in Econ 1011 and allow them the choice to take Econ 1001 if they feel they truly need help with math. Just because a student struggles without a calculator does not mean they cannot succeed in microeconomics. To put it in economics terms: The marginal cost of this policy seems to outweigh the marginal benefit.

Avalon Potter, a freshman majoring in international affairs, is a Hatchet opinions writer. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

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