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Harvard To Launch Review of Placement Exam Process in Effort To Improve Student Support, Communication

The Office of Undergraduate Education — located in University Hall — is launching a review of its placement exam system.
The Office of Undergraduate Education — located in University Hall — is launching a review of its placement exam system. By Aiyana G. White
By Vivi E. Lu and Ashley R. Masci, Crimson Staff Writers

The Office of Undergraduate Education is initiating a review of Harvard College’s placement exam system to streamline student support and prevent communication errors during the process, according to OUE Director of Academic Policy Sarah Champlin-Scharff.

Placement exams are intended to help students ascertain the appropriate class levels to take in fields such as the sciences, foreign languages, and music. Incoming freshmen are also required to take exams in writing and mathematics.

Students receive placement recommendations of classes that would best suit their academic skill level according to their scores.

Champlin-Scharff wrote in an email that the review will aim to “refresh policies and approaches that impact the student experience” with the goal of “increasing understanding and support.”

“We will be taking a look at the current placement exam website, thinking about the timing of recommendations, and looking for ways to enhance communication with students,” she wrote. “Considering the impact on students is central to this review.”

Champlin-Scharff added the OUE hopes to improve the efficiency of the placement exam system, which inherently touches many different Harvard departments.

“The placement exam process requires extensive coordination and collaboration with various offices and is carried out through various systematic means,” Champlin-Scharff wrote. “The review will allow opportunity to assess the effectiveness of the current system.”

The scoring ranges which are used to place students with certain scores into specific course levels, however, will not be evaluated as part of the process review, Champlin-Scharff noted.

Several students said they have run into technical problems with the placement exam process — specifically with scheduling the exams and receiving test results — in the past few years.

Alisa S. Regassa ’24, a Crimson Arts editor, described her experience with the placement exam process as “arbitrary” and “a little bit of a hassle.”

Regassa said her math exam score was different from her original score the second time she viewed her results. Her recommended placement changed from a higher level math class to an introductory level course.

“I thought it was just like me not remembering things correctly, but it turns out that maybe this is actually a mistake,” Regassa said.

Juliette B. Low Fleury ’22-’23, a business director for the Crimson, called the process of completing the Haitian Creole placement exam “frustrating” and “ridiculous.”

“For a language that isn’t really one of the main languages, if you have to schedule the exam yourself, there’s a lot of disconnect between when you schedule it and when it gets done,” Low Fleury said.

Low Fleury, a certified medical interpreter in Haitian Creole, said she reached out to her freshman dean, proctor, and placement exam coordinators in August 2018 – the fall of her freshman year – in hopes of meeting the language requirement necessary for graduation. Her exam was not scheduled until January 2020, however.

“I’ve been sending the placement [exam] people emails since before I started freshman year, and it’s kind of stressful to look into my advising report – like my.Harvard – and get emails from my deans and freshman proctors being like, ‘hey, you haven’t met the language requirement, do you know that?’” Low Fleury said. “And I’m like, ‘Yes. And I’ve been trying to do it for a really long time.’”

Although an instructor recommended Low Fleury for an Advanced Haitian Creole course following her exam, the placement exam coordinators told her in an April 2020 email that they had not received her exam result.

“I actually told them – I was like, ‘if you want me to sleep through Haitian Creole 1 and 2, I will,’” Low Fleury said. “But there’s no reason to waste two classes of my Harvard education doing something like that when I don’t have to, especially if we have such limited time on campus.”

Champlin-Scharff wrote that the process review would work to prevent such difficulties for students.

“The review is intended to create systematic efficiencies in order to prevent these sorts of student experiences in the future,” she wrote. “We will be addressing exactly these sorts of difficulties.”

—Staff writer Vivi E. Lu can be reached at vivi.lu@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Ashley R. Masci can be reached at ashley.masci@thecrimson.com.

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