The Guide to College Placement Tests: CPAt, ASSET, COMPASS & ACCUPLACER

The Career Programs Assessment Test (CPAt), the ASSET test program, COMPASS and ACCUPLACER are college placement tests used by community colleges, technical and vocational schools, career and other colleges to determine an incoming student’s scholastic strengths and weaknesses and to help students select the most appropriate courses. Students generally take these exams as part of the admissions process after being accepted. Exams are administered by the student’s school. All four are all approved by the US Department of Education for Ability-to-Benefit (ATB) students.




The CPAt measures basic skills through a series of three multiple-choice exams that cover reading, math and language, as well as student demographic and school-specific questions. The exam is in paper-and-pencil form, and takes about 60 minutes to complete. Scores can be computed immediately by the testing administrator. Students must score a minimum of 43 in reading skills, 41 in math and 42 in language usage to pass the CPAt for ATB purposes.


The reading comprehension portion of the exam tests for basic and advanced reading comprehension skills, as well as reading for main ideas. Test takers are allotted 25 minutes to complete the 30 questions in this section.


The math portion of the exam covers math from the basic through advanced skill levels. The test features problems that require basic and advanced algebra, geometry, fractions, percentages, averages, rounding and estimation, exponents, square roots, graphs, measurement and ratios. The test also features problems in story form. Twenty-five questions are presented, and the test taker has 20 minutes to complete them.


The language assessment presents 60 questions about a series of sentences. Each sentence has several underlined portions, and test takers must determine if there are errors. The errors may be found in grammar, spelling, capitalization, logic and structure or in punctuation. Test takers are given 15 minutes to complete the language arts portion of the exam.




The ASSET offers seven different multiple-choice tests, including writing, reading, math, elementary-, intermediate- and college-level algebra and geometry. Test takers are allotted 25 minutes for each test. Schools may elect to offer just one test, or any combination of the seven. They may also elect to add additional skill sections to their test, such as a writing sample. Most schools test their incoming students using the three basic writing, reading and math tests. To pass, students must score 35 in writing and reading and 33 in math.


The Writing Skills Test includes 36 questions that measure one’s grammar usage, punctuation, style, strategy and sentence structure. An example from the ASSET Student Guide questions word usage. The directions indicate the underlined word is in question, and students have four options – leave the word as is (no change), or three options to correct:

Some find that their strenuous efforts to earn a living drains away the energy necessary for running.


B.      drain

C.      has drained

D.     is draining


ACT suggests that students taking the Writing Skills Test determine each paragraph’s intended meaning before attempting to answer the questions related to the paragraph, and also to substitute each multiple-choice answer for the underlined portion to determine which one is the most appropriate replacement.


The Reading Skills Test looks at one’s ability to draw inferences from text, as well as one’s ability to find information in text. This section has 24 questions that follow reading passages. Questions may ask one to determine the meaning of a word in a particular paragraph or ask about the main idea. Tips from ACT include making sure test takers read the passage in its entirety before answering questions, rereading selections as needed and rereading sentences before and after a sentence in question to make sure one understands the context of the words in the sentence.


The Numerical Skills Test asks 32 questions and measures skills in basic math and pre-algebra. Advanced tests in elementary algebra, intermediate algebra, college algebra and geometry each ask 25 questions. Calculators are not permitted on the basic numerical skills test, but they are permitted on the advanced math tests. ACT recommends that students solve the problem before looking at the answers, and always double-check the math before selecting Not Given as an answer.




COMPASS is a computerized test that includes tests in math, reading, writing and English as a Second Language. COMPASS also includes a writing essay. With the exception of the essay, the tests are multiple choice. Scores are generated immediately, and the report includes course recommendations as well as registration instructions. COMPASS is generally not a pass/fail test but rather provides guidelines for course registration so that students take the most relevant classes. The number of COMPASS tests required will depend on a student’s program of study. The entire test is designed to be untimed, though some schools may limit the writing essay to 60 minutes.


COMPASS offers separate math tests in pre-algebra and numerical skills, which examine skills such as averages, fractions, decimals and percentages; algebra; college algebra; geometry; and trigonometry, as well as 15 diagnostic tests in pre-algebra and algebra. Students may use calculators if they meet test guidelines, or students can use a computer-based calculator.


The Reading Placement Test is designed to figure out if a student will succeed in an entry-level course or needs remedial instruction. The test measures reading comprehension and vocabulary using reading passages of practical reading, prose fiction, natural science, social science and humanities.


The Writing Skills Placement Test asks test takers to find errors in essays and correct them. Errors may appear in punctuation, sentence structure, basic grammar, style, organization and writing strategy. Segments of the essay appear in bold, and students are given five multiple-choice options to correct the bolded section.


The writing essay, called e-Write, presents an issue to which the test taker will need to respond. The writer is instructed to read the prompt and determine a position to take and develop a response. Responses are evaluated on the writer’s ability to take a clear stand on the issue, use evidence and reasoning to support their position, address the concerns of the intended audience, use logic and a coherent style to develop an argument and use clear and effective language throughout.


For ATB students, students must score a minimum of 62 on reading, 32 on writing skills and 25 on math. Some schools may charge students a fee to take the COMPASS. Tennessee Technical University, for example, assesses a $10 fee.




ACCUPLACER tests, like COMPASS tests, are not pass or fail exams, but rather are used to help students and their advisers plan appropriate course schedules. ACCUPLACER is considered an adaptive test, which means that the program uses answers from previous questions to determine which questions will follow. This helps to ensure that the tests remain constant with the test taker’s skill level. The tests include multiple choice sections in reading, math, language and writing. The tests are not timed, though some schools may elect to time the essay portion. ATB students must score 55 on reading comprehension, 60 on sentence skills and 34 on math to qualify.


The Sentence Skills Test includes 20 questions on sentence skills, including sentence correction and sentence rewriting. Questions may ask about a sentence’s logic or question its completion. The Reading Comprehension Test asks 20 questions after several reading passages.


In the Arithmetic Test, 17 questions are presented that deal with whole numbers, fractions, decimals, percentage, measurement, geometry, rate, estimation and basic addition, subtraction, multiplication and division functions. Students may also take the Elementary Algebra Test, which includes 12 questions involving absolute values, ordering, integers and negative rationals, algebraic expressions, multiplication and division of monomials and polynomials, fractions, factoring, word problems and geometric graphing. The College-Level Math Test asks 20 questions that assess the test taker’s abilities in intermediate algebra through precalculus.


The Written Essay Test asks students to take a position on an issue and respond to it in 300-600 words. The essays are evaluated on focus, organization, development, support, structure and mechanics.


For all exams, be sure to check with the test administrator, often an admissions counselor, about what to bring to the exam, such as pencils, scratch paper, identification or even a drink or snack.


Interested in test prep for the CPAt, ASSET, COMPASS or ACCUPLACER? Check out our directory of test prep providers.