COMPASS Test Breakdown

COMPASS or College Placement Tests are comprehensive tests used for placement of students to suitable courses as well as help colleges to judge whether the skill levels of students is up to the levels required for college success. It is a computer adaptive test that makes it possible to test the current level of students for appropriate placements as well as for suitable guidance for learning courses. For this purpose, placement and diagnostic tests are conducted in three major areas – reading, writing and mathematics.

The system of testing in COMPASS includes the following:

    • Placement test – used for placement of students in various courses according to their skills
    • Diagnostic tests – used to identify the weaknesses and strengths so that students can receive suitable guidance in various subjects
    • Demographics – which provides information about students to academic advisors

COMPASS is one of the most customized tests that are offered to students. However, it is unknown to most students who are taking it for the first time. This can cause hindrances and hitches in preparing for and taking the test. Therefore, to realize its benefits, students should understand the ins and outs of the test really well.

Since this test helps in self-assessment, it is extremely essential to take it well so that you can have the correct measure of your capabilities. The student should prepare for its specific structure, which emphasizes on testing complete skills in the subject areas.

COMPASS Test Modules


There are five test modules in COMPASS. These are as follows:

  • Reading
  • Writing Skills
  • Writing Essay (e-skills)
  • Mathematics
  • English as a Second Language (ESL)


The reading test is a multiple-choice and self-paced test. It is administered to see whether the students are able to understand written material.

Reading Placement Test
This test is administered to help the colleges to determine if the candidate possesses the skills in reading that are required for entry level college courses. The test is designed to measure their reading skills that need logical comprehension of the given subject. The student is required to deduce inferences out of the given information. Information is presented in the form of reading passages, about 190 to 300 words long.
The passages can be classified into five types depending upon the content of the passages. These are:

  1. Practical Reading
  2. Prose Fiction
  3. Humanities
  4. Social Sciences
  5. Natural Sciences

Reading Diagnostic Test
This test is helpful to identify the weaknesses and strengths of a candidate in reading skills basically required for college courses. The reading skills are tested by questions of comprehension, vocabulary and by reader profile.

Writing Skills

The writing test is an un-timed test composed of multiple-choice questions.

Writing Placement Test

The writing skills test helps to evaluate the skills of students in grammar, language usage and mechanics, sentence structure, organization, writing style and rhetorical skills. The questions require the students to identify errors in the given essay regarding these skills.
The student is presented with essays of about 200 words. The essay is embedded with errors which the student needs to identify.

Writing Diagnostic Test

The diagnostic test of writing skills is designed to diagnose the areas that require improvement in the use of grammar and language. For this purpose, the test includes questions covering the following content areas.

  • Punctuation
  • Capitalization
  • Spellings
  • Usage
  • Verb formation/agreement
  • Relationships of clauses
  • Shifts in construction
  • Organization

Writing Essay

This module contains an essay-writing question, which measures the student’s ability to express his ideas. It is un-timed and the student can complete the essay at his own pace.

In order to have an overall estimate of a student’s writing skills, COMPASS includes this test that evaluates the composition skills of students. In this test, the students are provided with a writing prompt, which is a set of statements presenting an issue. It also mentions two viewpoints about the given issue. The student is supposed to take his stand about the given issue and develop a logical and well-connected essay. The student must support his point of view with suitable reasons and examples. The Writing Essay effectively tests the expression as well as language abilities of the student.

The score of the writing sample is received immediately after the test is taken. A holistic score is given to this module either on a scale of 2 - 8 or on a score scale of 2 - 12.


The math test consists of multiple-choice questions and like other modules, this is also un-timed.

Mathematics Placement Test

This test is used to determine if the student would be capable enough to carry on with courses containing college level mathematics. It tests the student’s ability to compute answers using basic calculative skills. The students are also required to apply their knowledge to various mathematical problems. The use of calculators is allowed in this test; however only basic calculators provided by the testing authorities must be used.
The content area of this test covers the following topics

  • Pre-Algebra
  • Algebra
  • College algebra
  • Geometry
  • Trigonometry

Mathematics Diagnostic Test

The diagnostic test of mathematics contains such questions that help to highlight the weaknesses and strengths of students in this subject area. For this, the students are tested in 15 subtopics of Pre-Algebra and Algebra. These are as follows

  • Pre-Algebra – integers, decimals, exponents (including square roots, and scientific notation), fractions, percentages and averages (means, medians and modes).
  • Algebra – substituting values, setting up equations, factoring polynomials, exponents and radicals, basic operations/polynomials, linear equations/one variable, linear equations/two variables and rational expressions.

English as a Second Language (ESL)
The COMPASS testing program has a separate test designed for non-native English speakers. This gives a fair chance to non-native English speakers to be evaluated for their skills in English language since it is not correct to judge them against native English speakers in the same tests.

In order to test their proficiency in English, non-native English speakers are tested in four areas – Listening, Reading, Grammar/usage, and Essay.

  1. ESL Listening – The student is given a recording in English to listen and is asked questions on the recording. There are varying levels of difficulty of the recordings presented to the students. The students can note down the important points in the recording that can assist them in answering. This is done to emphasize on listening skills instead of memorizing skills.
  2. ESL Reading – The ability of students to read and understand the given material and make inferences is tested in this part of ESL tests. Certain questions pertaining to lower levels of difficulty concern with answering questions about the details that are clearly stated. Other questions pertaining to higher difficulty levels are about inferential reading. Sometimes questions are also based on interpretation of photos, charts, or other visual material.
  3. ESL Grammar/Usage – The questions on grammar and usage are generally presented in a fill-in-the-blanks format. It is followed with answer options out of which the best option needs to be selected. The two main areas covered in these questions are:
    • Elements of a sentence – for example, verbs, subjects, modifiers, word formation, etc.
    • Sentence structure and syntax – for example, order of words, relation between different clauses of a sentence etc.
  • ESL Essay (ESL e-Write) – This test tests the writing abilities of non-native speakers through an essay-writing question. Students are provided with a prompt, which is an issue related with a global subject. Another viewpoint about the same issue is also presented. The student is asked to provide his personal views about the prompt in an essay supported with reasonable examples. The student is tested for the way in which the essay is framed, language usage and mechanics, organization and focus maintained in the essay.

The COMPASS holds its importance due to the score report received in the test. The scores are extremely descriptive and help in complete analysis of the capabilities of students according to their performance in the tests. The score report of COMPASS includes the following:

  • Standard Individual Report
  • Student Demographics
  • Reporting Options
  • Research Reports

COMPASS is designed to help students in their academic growth. However, the only way to extract the most of its benefits is by preparing well for it. Hence, students should make it a point to understand the test really well so that they can prepare for it in the right way.

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