Which measures are most effective at placing students in the appropriate college math course?

A recent USHE analysis found that using multiple performance measures (e.g., GPA, ACT score) to successfully place a student in a general education math course is key to successful course completion. Furthermore, a student’s cumulative GPA is the most significant academic performance predictor of success in general education math courses that fulfill the USHE Quantitative Literacy (QL math) requirements for graduation from USHE institutions, even more than ACT math sub-scores or placement exam score.

The study analyzed the math course completion rates of over 57,000 students whose first math course was completed between Summer 2012 and Spring 2015. The math courses included in this analysis are the most common QL math courses and are also offered via concurrent enrollment: 1030, 1040, and 1050. Math 1010 is also included in the study, since 64% of all USHE students in this study took this course as their first college math course. All students (traditionally enrolled and those enrolled in a concurrent enrollment course) are included in this study since there are no statistically significant differences in performance between these two student types.

Enrollments in Math 1010, 1030, 1040, and 1050 as 1st Math Class, by Institution


ACT Math Sub-score

The ACT college admissions examination, now taken by at least once by all Utah students during high school, consists of four subject tests in English, math, reading and science. ACT results are accepted by all four-year colleges and universities in the US. Those scores are commonly used not only for admissions but for placement into general education college courses such as math and writing using a student’s individual sub-scores in the corresponding subject.

Placement Tests

Upon general acceptance to a university or college, students are often required to take placement tests. In addition to ACT and SAT admissions tests, institutions use placement tests in subjects like math and English to check the academic competency of entering students. A 2012 survey of the National Assessment Governing Board reports 85% of public four-year institutions and 100% of public two-year institutions in the US use placement exams for placement into math courses. USHE generally uses the ACCUPLACER—the most widely adopted placement exams in the country, licensed by the College Board; the same company that administers Advanced Placement (AP) programs.

Results of these exams are used to place each student in classes at the right competency level. If a student does not meet an institution’s established cut score on a required admissions or placement test, the score or subscore is an indicator that additional preparation is necessary before entering college level courses (e.g. Math 1010) to help remediate the student before enrolling in an appropriate general education course (e.g. Math 1030).

Math is the most common subject for placement exams. Placement tests are common at USHE institutions since almost all of them are open-enrollment institutions.

The Best Predictor of Math Success

The data is clear: no single performance measure or factor will solely predict success in general education college level courses (math, science, English, etc.). Hence, multiple measures (e.g. ACT scores, GPA and placement exams) should be used in the placement of students in those courses that will best lead to success.

How these measures are used and weighted are also important. In addition to previously released data illustrating the level of math competency needed for math success in college, this study found two primary conclusions related to the successful placement of students in Math 1010, 1030, 1040 and 1050 that lead to success:

  1. Most recent cumulative GPA is twice as predictive of successful course completion than placement test score for Math 1010 and Math 1050, the two most common math courses at USHE institutions.
  2. Students were likely to pass math courses with cumulative GPAs that were lower than current cut scores utilized by many USHE institutions.
    • 50% of students with a GPA of 3.4 or higher passed Math 1010 and Math/Stat 1040 with a C or better.
    • 50% of students with a GPA of 3.7 or better passed Math 1050 with a C or better.

The study also found that the most often-used ACCUPLACER exam to place students into a QL math course at a USHE institution is College Level Math, a test typically used by other institutions to place students into college-level Calculus courses. The more appropriate ACCUPLACER test to place students into most Math QL course is the less-advanced Elementary Algebra test.


  • USHE  institutions should consider using multiple measures to place students into math courses, in particular GPA in combination with placement exam. ACCUPLACER has a multiple weighted measures function that can assist with this.
  • USHE institutions should consider adjusting ACT Math cut scores, especially if using multiple measures.
  • Institutions should adjust how Accuplacer exams are used on their campuses to be in line with how the exams are designed to be used, including:
    • Utilizing Elementary Algebra for placement into most QL math courses.
    • Allowing the use of the recommended calculator function when it is available in the Accuplacer exam.
    • Revisiting cut scores using institutional data on a three-year cycle

Further work on this is is anticipated by the Chief Academic Officers of USHE institutions to ensure sufficient awareness, policy guidance, and professional development is in place to implement these recommendations.

Media Inquiries

Trisha Dugovic
Communications Director