Exam lets prospects ‘test drive’ online education

Nearly seven in 10 students pass Test Drive College Online's competency exam.
Nearly seven in 10 students pass Test Drive College Online's competency exam.

Prospective students returning to college after a lengthy layoff can gauge their basic English and math skills beforehand to make sure they’re ready for online classes with a new program designed to find the most qualified and disciplined students for web-based courses.

Test Drive College Online, launched May 5 at no charge, matches applicants with online institutions that best suit their academic goals after the student passes a 20-question College Competency Exam, which includes freshman-level math and English questions that help advisors identify students who aren’t yet ready for higher education.

Once students pass the competency test, they can enroll in a five-week course designed as a test run, letting them understand the demands of web-based classes before they pay tuition and find they can’t handle the workload. If the student completes the course, an advisor helps the student transfer the credits earned during the five-week class and enroll in any one of 200 online programs.

Seventy-five percent of applicants pass the five-week course, and students who fail the class are not allowed to retake it, according to the Test Drive web site.

Todd Zipper, senior vice president of EducationDynamics, Test Drive College Online’s parent company, said the competency test might discourage some applicants from returning to school. But failing the basic exam, he said, also will serve as a warning that web-based classes would not have been a wise investment.

“Online education isn’t necessarily right for everybody,” said Zipper, who designed online curriculum and taught for Kaplan University, which has more than 60,000 online and traditional students. “For those who are discouraged, that’s kind of the point. … This is not something to be taken lightly. Going back to school online is like going on a five-year diet where you don’t lose any weight. People have to be very focused and very disciplined.”

The program’s practice courses—English Composition and Introduction to Psychology—are accredited by the American Council on Education, which represents presidents and chancellors from accredited colleges and universities.

Applicants must have a high school diploma or GED, so high school students can’t take the competency exam or test out the program’s online courses. Test Drive students can’t be enrolled in a college or university, and they can’t be in default on a student loan, according to the program’s web site.

Test Drive officials pointed to the program’s predecessor, called Future Scholars, for proof that competency exams help find the most qualified students. Future Scholars who “test drove” online classes had a 25-percent retention rate increase from their first to second semesters. Sixty-seven percent of students pass the program’s competency test, a figure Zipper called “an appropriate number.”

Roger Sago, a Wisconsin IT consultant who passed the Test Drive College Online competency exam in a pilot program last year and is now in his sixth term at Kaplan University, said weeding out students who aren’t ready for online courses will save those students time and money in the long run.