Placement Tests: COMPASS and ESL/COMPASS
Who must take a placement test?
All new students at South Seattle College must take either the Standard COMPASS or the ESL/COMPASS test for initial placement into college coursework and programs.
Standard COMPASS or ESL/COMPASS Test?
If you have taken and passed a college level English (English composition) or Math (college algebra) course with at least a 2.0, you may not be required to take that portion of the COMPASS test. Submit an Incoming transcript evaluation form and official, sealed transcript to:
- Native English speakers take the Standard COMPASS Reading and Writing and the COMPASS Math.
- Non-native English speakers should begin testing with the ESL/COMPASS Grammar/Usage, Reading, Listening, and the COMPASS Math. The test software will move examinees earning high scores in Grammar/Usage and Reading, into the Standard COMPASS Writing and Reading for placement into English courses.
- COMPASS Math is the same test for Standard or ESL/COMPASS.
SSC Credentials Evaluator
South Seattle College
6000 16th Ave SW, RSB 045
Seattle, WA 98106-1499.
How do I use scores from a placement test taken at another college within the last 2 years?
- Request the COMPASS or ESL/COMPASS score report be faxed from that testing office to Student Assessment Services, 206-934-6766, or deliver/mail the score report officially (in a sealed envelope from that testing office) to SSC/Student Assessment Services, 6000 16th Ave SW, Seattle WA, 98106-4199. After the scores have been recorded, you may see a South advisor for placement.
- If you took a placement test within the previous year at another Washington state institution, you may use that institution's placement for a comparable class at South, if you follow the conditions and procedure on the Placement Reciprocity Student Request Form.
What is the COMPASS test?
The Standard COMPASS and the ESL/COMPASS tests are placement tests.
- You will earn scores reflecting your skill level in reading and writing standard American English, and in math.
- These scores will place you into your first classes at SSC.
- After completing the Standard COMPASS or ESL/COMPASS test, you will arrange to meet with an advisor to discuss your plans and courses.
- Enrolling for courses for which your skills are appropriate will increase your chance of success.
- If you demonstrate academic weaknesses, you can get help to improve underdeveloped skills before they interfere with your learning.
- KEEP THIS REPORT WITH YOU for advisors/counselors and for your instructors in your first classes.
The Standard COMPASS and ESL/COMPASS tests are:
- Computer delivered. Only basic computer skills are necessary. There will be testing staff in the lab to assist with any problems. Be sure of your answers before moving on; you cannot return to a previous question.
- Multiple choice answers for all sections.
- Untimed. Read instructions carefully and work at your own rate. If you do not complete the test in one testing session, you may return to finish. The average time for the test is 2-3 hours.
- Adaptive. The test will offer more challenging questions as you answer accurately, or more basic questions if you answer incorrectly. You may also be given a series of Diagnostic questions in Writing or Math. No two people will experience exactly the same test.
- Progressive. The math test begins in Pre-Algebra and advances you to advanced levels as you answer correctly: Algebra, College Algebra, Trigonometry.
- Comprehensive. COMPASS also asks “demographic”questions about you: your educational background, academic and career plans, and what assistance you might need at SSC. Your answers help counselors and advisors know you better so that they can assist you to be successful and help SSC administrators improve student service.
Standard COMPASS Writing Skills Test
The Standard COMPASS Writing test asks the examinee to find errors and make corrections in an on-screen passage:
- Read through the passage for meaning.
- Locate errors in grammar, usage, or style. Click on the sentence and replace that portion of the passage with one of five multiple-choice alternatives. The first choice is always “no change”.
- After a passage is completed, there are two general questions about the passage.
- Always be sure you are finished before moving on to the next passage; you cannot go back to change answers.
The elements tested in the Writing test are:
- Usage/Mechanics: punctuation, basic grammar and usage, sentence structure
- Rhetorical Skills: strategy, organization, style
View a screen shot of the Writing Test or see "How to prepare" for Writing sample questions.
Examinees may also be presented with the Writing Diagnostic Test, assessing strengths and weaknesses in eight writing skills areas:
- Verb Formation and Agreement
- Relationships of Clauses
- Shifts in Construction
Standard COMPASS Reading Test
The Standard COMPASS Reading Test is an assessment of reading comprehension. Passages are presented from books, essays journals and magazines commonly used in entry-level college courses. They may be prose fiction, humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, or practical reading. Five comprehension items are asked for each passage:
- referring items ask the reader to directly refer to the passage for the answer
- reasoning items require the reader to make appropriate inferences, develop a critical understanding of the text, or determine specific meanings of difficult, unfamiliar, or ambiguous words based on context.
See "How to prepare" for Reading sample questions.
Standard COMPASS Math Test
The COMPASS Math Test at SSC has four levels: Pre-Algebra, Algebra, College Algebra, and Trigonometry.
You will progress to the higher levels only if you answer enough of the questions on the previous level correctly.
A hand-held calculator (TI-30XIIs) is also available; no personal calculators are allowed.
See "How to prepare" for COMPASS Math sample questions.
Watch a video of the Microsoft Standard/Scientific calculator available on-screen during the test.
All COMPASS examinees at SSC start in this portion of the math test. Items range in content from basic arithmetic concepts and skills (e.g., basic operations with integers, fractions, and decimals), to the knowledge and skills considered prerequisites for a first algebra course (e.g., understanding and use of exponents, absolute values, and percentages).
Content area for Numerical Skills/Pre-Algebra:
- Basic operations with integers
- Basic operations with fractions
- Basic operations with decimals
- Exponents, square roots, and scientific notation
- Ratios and proportions
- Conversions between fractions and decimals
- Multiples and factors of integers
- Absolute values of numbers
- Averages (means, medians, and modes)
- Order concepts (greater than/less than)
- Estimation skills
- Number theory
- Counting problems and simple probability
Examinees scoring at least 55 on the Pre-Algebra test advance into the Algebra test, with items in three curriculum areas.
Content areas for Algebra
- Substituting values into algebraic expressions
- Setting up equations for given situations
- Basic operations with polynomials
- Factoring of polynomials
- Solving polynomial equations by factoring
- Formula manipulation and field axioms
- Linear equations in one variable (using integers, fractions, and decimals as coefficients)
- Exponents and radicals
- Linear inequalities in one variable
- Rational expressions
- Exponents and radicals
- Systems of linear equations in two variables
- Quadratic formulas
- Absolute value equations and inequalities
- Linear equations in two variables
- Distance formulas in the plane
- Graphing conics (circle, parabola, etc.)
- Graphing parallel lines
- Graphing perpendicular lines
- Graphing relations in the plane
- Graphing systems of equations and rational functions
- Midpoint formulas
Examinees scoring at least 65 on the Algebra test advance to College Algebra, which tests algebra knowledge and skills in a variety of content areas such as functions, operations with matrices, and factorials.
Content area for College Algebra
- Complex numbers
- Arithmetic and geometric sequences and series
- Matrices (basic operations, equations, and determinants)
- Systems of linear equations in three or more variables
- Logic and proof techniques
- Roots of polynomials
Examinees scoring at least 50 on College Algebra advance to Trigonometry, which tests the examinee’s understanding of trigonometric concepts and their application in problem solving.
Content areas of Trigonometry
- Trigonometric functions and identities
- Right-triangle trigonometry
- Trigonometric equations and inequalities
- Graphs of trigonometric functions
- Special angles (multiples of 30 and 45 degrees)
- Polar coordinates
What is the ESL/COMPASS test?
If your native language is NOT English you begin placement testing with the ESL/COMPASS test.
- You may place into non-credit or Transitional (credit) ESL classes to prepare you for college-level coursework.
- If you score very high in ESL/Grammar, test software will move you into the Standard Writing test for English course placement.
- If you score very high in the ESL/Reading, test software will move you into the Standard Reading test for English course placement.
- The math test is the same for Standard or ESL/COMPASS
There are three English parts to the ESL/COMPASS test
- This test assesses a student's ability to understand spoken standard American English.
- Headphones will be used to hear the English spoken.
- You may read the questions before listening to the spoken English.
- When you are ready, listen carefully as you can listen only one time.
- Items range from recognizing pictures which match spoken words or phrases at the lowest levels to answering questions about academic materials at the highest levels.
- Students may take notes while listening.
- ESL Listening Sample Questions - Used by Permission, ACT 2010.
- This test assesses a student's ability to make corrections to standard American English grammar in two main areas:
- Sentence Elements including verbs, subjects and objects, modifiers, function words, punctuation, capitalization and word formation.
- Sentence Structure and Syntax including word order, relationships between and among clauses, agreement.
- Some items in this test present blanks in sentences and choices to fill in the blanks. Other items offer a question with four options, based on a reading passage
- ESL Grammar/Usage Sample Questions - Used by Permission, ACT 2010.
- This test assesses a student's ability to understand written standard American English.
- Students will read passages, ranging in length from several sentences to many paragraphs, followed by multiple choice questions testing their ability to understand and infer meaning.
- Items range from recognizing pictures that match words at the lowest levels to answering questions about academic materials at the highest levels.
- Students also may be asked to interpret photographs, tables, charts or graphs, or to follow directions using a map or other diagram.
- ESL Reading Sample Questions - Used by Permission, ACT 2010.
When are the placement tests given?
See the contact information page for testing hours and COMPASS test sessions.
Testing early can have advantages!
- In order to have better access to the testing lab and the best choice of classes, please complete your placement testing at least 2 months before classes begin. This will allow you time to see an advisor and register for classes before they fill and close.
- There may be a wait-list for COMPASS testing during the month before classes begin.
COMPASS and ESL/ COMPASS (placement) Tests
- No appointments are given. Seating is first-come, first-seated in our 35-computer testing lab.
- Come at the Start Time of the testing session for the best chance of seating.
- Have government-issued photo ID and receipt from the SSC Cashier for test fee.
- Prepare by reviewing the sample questions and refreshing math or English skills you once learned but have forgotten.
- Select a test session from the Testing Calendar; plan to arrive at the START time.
- Have your government-issued photo ID with you (driver’s license, state ID, passport).
- Obtain a student ID number from the Registration Desk.
- Pay the testing fee ($19.00) at the Cashier window.
- Come to Robert Smith Building, Room 76, with your photo ID (driver’s license, state ID, passport, military ID, immigration ID card) and receipt. Please see "Getting to Campus" for directions, bus, and parking information.
- Parking is free on 16th Ave SW. However, depending on time of day, you may have blocks to walk (and an uphill climb). If parking on campus, the closest lot is the South, general (not staff) parking lot. There are kiosks for paying the $3 daily fee. Do not park in Visitor Parking; it is limited to 45 minutes and tickets will be issued.
- You will be asked if you wish to begin the test in the English (Reading and Writing) or the Math portion.
- A standard/scientific Microsoft calculator is available on-screen during the math test. A hand-held calculator, TS-3-X11S, is also supplied during the test; NO personal calculators are allowed.
- Scratch paper and pencils are provided. Scratch paper will be collected.
- You will store all electronics, paperwork, bags and purses in lockers in our hallway; ONLY your locker key and ID are allowed in the test lab. Lockers are 12” x 13” x 18”; leave anything larger at home.
- The COMPASS tests are untimed but average 2-3 hours for most examinees. If you do not finish in one test session, you may return within one month to complete the test.
- You may arrive AFTER the start time; however, keep in mind that seating is first-come, first-served (you may be placed on a wait-list) and that the testing lab closes at the stated STOP times on the schedule. You may need to return another day to complete the test.
- You may take a single portion of the test (eg. Math only); the fee is the same.
- No food or drink allowed in the test lab.
- No books, notes, dictionaries, or translators of any kind are allowed.
- You may take restroom or other breaks during the test session, but ONLY between test sections.
- Be sure of your answer before clicking “go on”; you may not go back to change answers.
- You can never be told the correct answers or which answers you missed.
- Retesting is an exception. There is a 3-month wait period to re-test and a second fee is charged.
- Your scores print when you have finished the test and you may then meet with advisors to discuss classes and plans at South. Call 206-934-5387 for an advising appointment. If you are a new student, you should register for a New Student Orientation at www,southseatle.edu/start; have your COMPASS score report with you for orientation. You may also visit the Pre-Advising web site.
What disability services are available?
For those with special needs:
There is no time limit for the COMPASS test but other accommodations may be available if arranged well in advance through Educational Support Services & Disability Services.
Visit the ESS/DS web page for more information.
Why should I prepare for the placement test?
- Your advisor or counselor will be guided in your course placement by the scores you receive in the COMPASS or ESL/COMPASS English and math tests.
- You will save time and tuition dollars if you achieve higher COMPASS scores, enabling you to begin at SSC in higher level courses. See an example of how you can save money with COMPASS preparation.
- Retesting is the exception. There is a three-month wait period and a second testing fee charged.
How do I prepare for the placement test?
Doing your best on the Placement test involves Attitude and Preparation.
- Realize that your placement on this test will determine at what level you begin your college experience. If you expect to rush through the test, you could place into pre-college (developmental) work which will require quarters of your time and energy and drain your college funds or financial aid which pays for only 45 credit hours.
- Expect to spend an entire morning or afternoon taking this test. You will need to be focused, alert, and thoughtful. The test is untimed. This means that you are free (and are expected to) read the instructions VERY CAREFULLY so you understand how the test works. You may take breaks between sections of the test, or if you become ill or tire, you may return at another test session to complete.
- Understand that there is a Seattle College District wait period of 3 months and a second fee to retake the test.
Preparation for English and Math
Visit the Seattle College District website for COMPASS Prep information: www.beforeyoutest.org
Enroll in the Basic & Transitional Studies COMPASS Prep Class
If you plan to prepare independently,
Native English Speakers:
- Standard COMPASS examinees should prepare with practice tests, sample questions, and review of Writing Skills and Reading.
Non-Native English Speakers:
- ESL/COMPASS examinees should review the Listening, ESL Reading, and Grammar sample questions. Also practice the Standard Writing Skills and Reading test samples (above) if you believe your English skills may be college level.
COMPASS Math is given to both native and non-native English speakers.
How do I deal with test anxiety?
About That Test Anxiety of Yours…
Test anxiety is not uncommon and can be debilitating. It is defined as an excessive concern over your ability to perform well in a test. Now, you need the good news. You CAN change your behavior. Below are a few tips I pass along to my students long before they sit for their first quiz. I hope this information will be of help to you.
- To increase your confidence you must experience success.
- To experience success, get tips on how to study and find out what concepts will be tested.
Your goal is to know what concepts will be on the test and over-learn the material. That is, know it so well that you “over-ride” your anxiety and perform well. Think of the Olympic diver who daily practices the high dive. When the time comes to perform a dive, her muscles have “memory”. She may be a little anxious but she remembers many consistently beautiful dives. She visualizes the details of a great dive. She walks out on the board; she performs well. Begin two weeks before the test, and daily practice your material. You will be building your long-term memory. It is the memory “muscle” you need for the test.
- Do not wait until the night before the test to study. Your short-term memory is often not strong enough to carry you through the test. Your goal is to respond in the test with the same memory strength you experience when you tie your shoes.
- Support your brain! When you experience a negative thought, don’t let it have the last word! Immediately respond with, “I know what to study; I study with focus each night.” Does that sound too easy? Does it sound as though you are lying to yourself? Not at all. You are telling your brain what to think. You did the same thing when you embedded your negative thoughts. This time you are replacing what is not working.
- Support your body. Even light exercise reduces stress, increases the oxygen and changes the body chemistry to allow you to relax and think. Check with your doctor regarding appropriate exercise.
- Not all tests have the same instructions. Read the instructions carefully.
- Breathe when you begin to get anxious. Take a slow, deep breath. Start at the bottom of your lungs and slowly fill your lungs. Hold for a count of four. Slowly release the air through your mouth. Rest. Breathe normally for a few breaths then repeat deep breathing for three or four times. By slowing your breath, you have told your body to relax. You give your body the chance to think again.
- It is a myth that the best students always finish quickly. Stay laser focused on your goal.
- If you don’t know a COMPASS answer, make an intelligent guess. Don’t change your first answers unless you are positive you have made an error.
- Changing a habit takes practice. Remember, it took daily practice to learn the habits that are not working for you. Your school counselor can give you extra support.
1. Goleman, Daniel. (1997) Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Bantam Books
2. The Inner Game of Tennis. W. Timothy Gallwey. Random House, New York, NY
About the Author: Sandra Bolt is the Director of Student Assessment Services and a faculty member at South Seattle College where she teaches courses in understanding and predicting human behavior in organizations.
South Seattle College/Student Assessment Services, Sandra Bolt - December 2010
How do I read my COMPASS score report?
See sample score reports and brief explanations of the report components:
How long are COMPASS scores valid for placement?
At South, your COMPASS scores are valid for placement for two years.
Explore the wealth of information at South's new Pre-Advising web site.