Freshman Assessment Program gives new students a push in the right direction

By The Columbia Chronicle

The Freshman Assessment Program has been utilizing a unique computer program and an ultra-friendly environment to add to its reputation as one of the most helpful student-oriented programs at Columbia.

This program assesses incoming freshmen and transfer students with fewer than 15 credit hours, according to Lynn Levy, the Freshman Assessment Manager. She emphasized that the tests administered are not pass/fail entrance exams (Columbia has an open-admissions policy), but instead are used to place students in appropriate class levels based on their scores.

“Many times, students don’t come here asking, ‘do I have to take this test’ but instead ‘when can I take it’,” Levy said, noting the nervous anticipation of class placement by newer students. The test is called Compass, and in many ways, this unique computerized test is very much like a compass.

The multiple-choice test has three parts-reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic-and is taken exclusively via computer. The program leads students on to different problems based on their previous answers. Therefore, not all tests taken by a given number of students contain the same questions; instead, they are based on the students’ perceived strengths from their answers as compiled by the computer.

Levy said that the assessment process saves new students time and worry and offers them not only placement opportunities, but also advice in a number of different fields. In a startling example of interoffice collaboration, Levy noted that the freshman assessment program works closely with Freshman Orientation as well as advisors from every academic department and most administrative departments, including Financial Aid, Academic Advising, Housing, and Student Support Services, among others. “I’ve done plenty of advising myself,” said Levy.

Levy has been the Freshman Assessment Manager since August 1997 and has been teaching public speaking classes at Columbia for two years. “Being a teacher and a tutor myself, I get a chance to see these struggles firsthand,” she said. Placing certain students in general classes (English Composition I, for example) where they struggle instead of putting them into developmental classes (like Intro to College Writing) where they may belong can cause disillusioned students to quit, Levy said. “We have an ethical responsibility to these students to help them and to make their transition to college a successful, pleasant experience,” she said.

Pleasantness is an integral part of the orientation/assessment process. “It is as much about welcoming as assessing,” Levy said. There is even a ‘welcome packet’ offered with the test. Politeness and helpfulness are “imperative,” Levy said, because “we are the first people these new students see.”

Up to 22 students can take the Compass test at a time, and Levy said that freshmen aren’t the only students taking the tests. Any students can take certain portions of the test solely to confirm their academic placement. Levy noted that many faculty initially had reservations regarding the use of the Compass test to assist upperclassmen on a voluntary basis. However, the number of students taking the test, up to 1,503 this year from 1,180 last year, has reinforced Levy’s “if you build it, they will come” philosophy.

Levy noted the increase of new Columbia students from out of state, especially from the East Coast. She deals as much with them as the many concerned, confused parents that call her. But, she said, “I see more smiling students when they leave here. I am an ambassador in a way; I love that contact with the student and faculty,” she added.