Vetter: Why proficiency exams matter and why CWRU should inform students about them

Milo Vetter, Contributing Writer

With Case Western Reserve University’s massive Class of 2025 (standing 1,600 strong) filling up the freshman dorms and even most of Clarke Tower, courses are noticeably crammed. For example, MATH 121: Calculus for Science and Engineering I has a mind-boggling 512 seats taken—enough to fill Strosacker Auditorium completely.

Luckily, there is a way for first-year students to avoid these massive classes; they can use earned credit from high school Advanced Placement (AP) tests to place out of them. And, even better, if a student didn’t quite pass an AP exam or was unable to take it, they can instead take a proficiency exam.

Proficiency exams are pretty simple. Right before a class begins, you can take what’s essentially the final exam, and if you pass, you don’t have to take the class. They can be beneficial for students who are confident in their abilities in math, physics, chemistry or computer science.

However, there’s a problem with proficiency tests, namely that they only happen once per semester. If you miss the test date or didn’t know about it, then, well, you’re out of luck, and you have to take a class that may just be review. It’s frustrating to hear from people that didn’t know proficiency exams existed until it was too late. 

Consider for a moment how many students at CWRU took AP Calculus or Physics in high school, only to have to spend their valuable time and tuition relearning the same material. That time could be better spent taking advanced classes earlier, thereby easing students’ course loads in their later years. This is without mentioning that administering classes covering known material is an unnecessary drain on professors, Teaching Assistants (TAs) and the university’s resources. To put it simply, it is not in the interest of the students, faculty or administration of CWRU for students to retake these classes. 

Following this logic, CWRU should be clamoring for its students to take as many proficiency exams as possible. Even if a student can’t place out of a class, it may be worth taking the exam to preview the coursework for the year. Despite fall proficiency exams occurring during Discover Week, the logistics of those tests, including time and location, were mentioned only on the week’s schedule. Additionally, several directly conflicted with orientation sessions, giving the impression that the exams are far less important than those sessions—though I’d argue the opposite.

Now, I’m not saying that  Discover Week should shove the proficiency exams down the throats of every single incoming student. I’ve even talked to some upperclassmen who expressed concerns that proficiency exams are dangerous because they can lead people to struggle in future classes if they have a poor understanding of the prerequisite material. It can also be helpful for students to retake these classes either to settle into college life more easily or to improve their familiarity with the subject matter—after all, one wouldn’t need to take a proficiency exam had they gotten a high score on the corresponding AP test.

So clearly, this calls for a middle ground. I propose that in the future, CWRU’s Discover Week itinerary highlights proficiency exams at some point—not just to promote them, but also to inform students about the potential risks of placing out of a class whose content they don’t fully grasp. There is much to be gained and little to be lost from informing students about their ability to place out of prerequisite classes with proficiency exams. 

Finally, if you’re a first-year, this is my call to action. If you plan to take a class that you took the AP equivalent of (for example, PHYS 121: General Physics I – Mechanics or ENGR 131: Elementary Computer Programming), it’s not too late to take a proficiency exam. They will probably happen in early January, and depending on the exam, you may have to preregister. If you’re curious and want to either place out of a class or get a jumpstart or sneak peek at the material, go ahead and look up the proficiency exam for the class you’re thinking about taking.