NIU Mathematics Placement Exam

Every NIU mathematics course except Math 101 requires that a prerequisite course be completed first (with the exception of some restricted-admissions courses such as advanced seminars). The Mathematics Placement Exam (MPE) is designed to enable students to take other courses without first completing the prerequisite course if they have a solid foundation of high-school mathematics.

Here are some frequently-asked questions about the test. If your questions are not answered here, contact the department at 1-815-753-0566 or

Q: Do I have to take the MPE?
A: Probably, but not necessarily.

Every NIU graduate must successfully fulfill a mathematics Core Competency requirement, which almost always means taking a math course.

If the only math course you need is Math 101, you may enroll in it directly; you don't need the Math Placement Exam, and you can fulfill the mathematics Core Competency requirement by passing this one course. However, apart from majors in Visual and Performing Arts, and B.A. candidates in Liberal Arts and Sciences, almost every undergraduate degree program at NIU specifically requires some other math course; the math requirement is set by the faculty in that program. So, unless you are in one of these two groups, and are certain you will not change your major nor attempt another NIU math course, you should take the MPE. Note: B.A. candidates in LA&S have a foreign-language requirement in lieu of an additional math requirement.

There are a few exceptions:

  • Students admitted under a special-admissions program ("CHANCE") will be given an alternative placement test.
  • Students with Advanced Placement credit for Math 229 (Calculus 1) may take courses with a Math 229 prerequisite without any further testing.
  • Students who have completed a prerequisite course at another institution with a sufficiently high grade will generally be permitted to take the next math course at NIU without taking the MPE. However, this policy is under review.
  • Of course, students who have taken all the math courses they will need at another institution, and will take no NIU math course, will not need to take the MPE.

Some 2200 students take the MPE every year. (There are about 2500 regularly-admitted freshmen each year.) Why not go ahead and take the test? You'll be in good company!

Q: When do I take it?
A: You are required to take the MPE on a day prior to your orientation day.

The advantage of taking the MPE early in the Spring or Summer is the following: if your placement level does not permit you to take the math courses you wanted to begin your NIU career, you have the option of taking a course at a community college over the summer before arriving at NIU. In many cases the course will transfer to NIU for graduation credit, and as an added bonus you'll have your math skills freshened when you arrive at NIU in the Fall.

It is strongly advised that you begin your NIU math class(es) as soon as possible after you begin at NIU so that your placement level remains an accurate assessment of what you remember about mathematics. We are currently considering requiring students to take a second MPE if several semesters have elapsed since the first MPE with no NIU math classes taken.

Q: Is it hard?
A: The test consists of 40 multiple-choice questions: 5 choices per question, no penalty for guessing. The questions range from Basic Algebra through Advanced Algebra (e.g. logarithms and graphing). There is a separate portion (20 questions) on trigonometry which is required only if you are trying to test into Math 229 (Calculus 1). You have 75 minutes to take the test, which seems to be sufficient for almost everyone. You will not need a calculator and are not permitted to bring in any electronic tools, books, or notebooks.

Scores have ranged from 0 to 100%. Roughly as many students get more than half right as get fewer than half right. Remember, though, that you're not competing with other students, and you don't "pass" or "fail" the MPE; it's a diagnostic tool used to determine which math courses would be best for you. With the diverse backgrounds of NIU students, that means we have plenty of students in each group! (The current cohort is expected to break down to about 13% in group A, 31% in group B, 29% in group C, 19% in group D and 8% in group E. The groups are described below.)

Q: Should I study for it?
A: Probably not! The purpose of this test is to determine which math course at NIU is the one from which you're most likely to benefit. When we interpret test results, we know that most students have walked in not having studied hard for a test, and we treat the test scores accordingly. (After all, that's probably just how you'll walk in to your first NIU math class anyway, right?) So, in a way, you would do yourself a disservice to study hard and do well, only to be put in to a class with other people who can do what you did without having to work at it.

On the other hand, it never hurts to study a little math. If your goal is to jump into a higher-numbered math course, you might as well try to get a good score and maybe be placed directly into that course.

If you wish to study for the test, find your notes or textbook from an advanced-algebra course in high school. You will need to be comfortable with these topics to do well on the MPE: rules of algebra including exponents, absolute values, and radicals; linear and quadratic equations; solving inequalities and systems of linear equations; functional notation and graphing; complex numbers; and logarithms and exponential functions. Those wishing to test for entrance to Math 229 (calculus) would need also to review their trigonometry, analytic geometry, and the terminology of functions. You need not be concerned if some of these topics are unfamiliar to you; that is precisely the goal of the placment test -- to determine which mathematics topics you need to study next. So you should review only the material which you have actually learned in school.

Q: How is the MPE test score used?
A: We look at the questions you answered correctly, weighting some of them more heavily, and factor in any information we have from other sources such as your ACT math subscore. We use all this to place you into one of five groups according to the kind of initial math courses you will likely find most beneficial. Here is a table showing the highest-numbered math course you can take right after you take the MPE:

PlacementHighest Course
AMath 229
BMath 155, Math 206, Math 210, Math 211
CMath 110

You won't find "098" and "096" in the Undergraduate Catalogue; these are courses offered on the NIU campus by Kishwaukee College to help students bridge the gap to College Algebra. Click here to find out more about these transition courses.

Note that you are always welcome to take a lower-numbered course, and that everyone, even if given a D- or E-level placement, may take Math 101. (The placement test is also ignored for the groups of students mentioned earlier who don't need the MPE.)

Q: I've been told I'm in placement group "E". Now I'm told I need another placement exam!
A: The MPE has too few questions to be able to do a good job measuring student skills at all levels. Students given either "D" or "E" placements are not ready for NIU's Math 110. It is our expectation that students in the "D" group are ready for an Intermediate Algebra course at a community college, but we cannot tell for sure with the "E"-level students. Kishwaukee Community College has agreed to place NIU students with a "D" placement directly into their Intermediate Algebra course, but they prefer to re-test those with an "E" placement using another exam which is more sensitive to differences in skill at that level.

If you have an "E" placement and you would like to participate in the KCMA program, you should register for the Math Compass Exam with the NIU Testing Services. Based on the result of this exam, you may be placed into Intermediate Algebra (KCMA 098) or Basic Algebra (KCMA 096).

If you decide to work up towards College Algebra at some other community college, you will have to abide by whatever placement system that other school uses. Just make sure that when you are ready to take NIU's College Algebra (Math 110) that you bring (1) a grade of C or higher from a community-college Intermediate Algebra class, and (2) a firm grounding in the algebra skills you'll need in Math 110!

Please observe that a student who takes KCMA 096 will not fulfill the NIU math Core Competency requirement until completing (with a grade of C or higher) KCMA 096, then KCMA 098, then Math 110, and then one of Math 155, 206, 210, or 211. If one of those last four courses is required for your degree program, it will take four semesters at least to complete the sequence. It may be in your best interest to change your major to one for which no specific math course is required, so that you can move immediately into Math 101 and (if successful) be done with mathematics after one semester. Consult your departmental advisor to make sure you are following an appropriate path to a degree. This is especially important for students considering technical fields such as engineering who are facing many difficult years of mathematics courses if they begin with a "D" or "E" level placement.

Q: This can't be right! I've been placed into a course I've already done in high school!
A: Almost all of our incoming students have seen some or all of the material in courses like College Algebra (Math 110) and possibly higher. That's very good; it will make your college work easier. But we really have to look to the future, not the past; we are trying to place you into a math course where the amount of mathematics you can actually use comfortably is enough. We have done a great deal of statistical work checking on student success. In our experience, well over 70% of the students who take a course not usually permitted by their MPE placement level get D's, F's, or W's in that course, and must repeat. It makes much more sense to spend that first semester in a preparatory course.

Our placement process uses data from your ACT or SAT exams, too. These exam scores generally corroborate the MPE score. Most students whose MPE score is lower than they expected also have lower ACT scores than they would prefer. This gives us two separate external validations of your high school work. (There are colleges which use only the math ACT subscore for placement; you may wish to compare where you would be placed at those schools on that basis.)

While the MPE levels have proven statistically to be well-correlated to a student's future math goals, it's not clear why they don't always match a student's past math courses. We can only speculate why some students perform poorly on standardized exams after passing several high school math courses. Remember, it's not enough to take math courses in high school; you have to have mastered the material and have it at your disposal. Perhaps your math classes were long ago? Maybe your grades were not very good? Or perhaps the good grade you received reflected your class participation or extra-credit activities which don't really measure your mastery of the mathematics? Maybe the teacher you thought was "kind" was simply not pushing you to excel? In any case, while we regret that students are disappointed with the mismatch between the MPE and their high school record, it is important for us to look forward to your NIU courses and how to help you succeed here, rather than look backward to high school. Since college mathematics classes are more intense than in high school (a 180-day high school course is completed here in about 45 lectures), we must be cautious when placing students into college courses which might appear superficially similar to their high school classes.

Q: Is there an appeal process? Can I retake the exam?
A: If your placement level is far out of line with other measures of your skill, you should contact the math department for advising. If it is clear that some unusual event has occurred we can look for a more authentic measure of your skills. We may advise you to contact the Office of Testing Services, 753-1203 where you may, for a fee, take a different placement test (produced by a national testing corporation). We will generally allow a student to take a course suggested by that exam. However, in our experience, as many students are moved into a lower placement level by that test than are moved into a higher one!

You may not retake the MPE, and in fact we discourage students from requesting the alternative test without compelling reason. A good analogy is a medical exam: when you get bad news from a doctor, it doesn't really make sense to keep shopping around for a doctor who will tell you that you are well. It makes more sense to deal with your real situation. A review of your MPE placement is only appropriate when it differs greatly from another normed exam (e.g. there may be an error if your ACT Math subscore is 30 or above and your MPE placement group is C, D, or E.)

With the exception of the KCMA classes, the NIU mathematics courses described here all carry graduation credit (as electives). This means you will not have to complete any more courses at NIU whether you start with College Algebra (Math 110) or Calculus (Math 229); you'll just be taking Math 110 (say) instead of some other 3-credit hour elective. There may be nothing gained by rushing ahead! Indeed, rather than appeal your math placement, you may prefer simply to take the math course which you think will be easy for you, so that you can begin your NIU career with a nice high grade.

Q: I did really well on the MPE. Do I still need to take a math course?
A: Almost certainly. The MPE is a placement tool only, and asks questions only about mechanical algebraic skills typically taught in high school. But the university Core Competency program aims to ensure that every student is exposed to mathematical thinking at the college level. The MPE makes no pretense to have tested for that.

If you feel you have already mastered that level of competence, you may request a Core Competency Proficiency Exam from Testing Services. This exam is comparable to the final exam from Math 101. (Very few students pass the proficiency exam without taking Math 101.)

Starting in the Fall of 2002, students with an MPE placement level of A or B may use this score in partial fulfillment of the university-wide Core Competency requirement if they also complete Statistics 208 with a grade of C or higher; more information on the Core Competency requirement is available.

Although a good score on the MPE will not give you credit for any math course, it is possible to obtain such credit by examination in some cases; in particular, you may earn credit for Math 229 (and thus complete the NIU mathematics Core Competency requirement) with a good score on the AP Calculus Exam. There are a few other comparable testing programs in place; contact the Office of Testing Services for more information.

Q: I have been a student elsewhere and their placement process put me into a different course. Can I use that placement instead of Northern's?
A: No. As is the case at NIU, most institutions work hard to make a placement test which reflects the way their courses are taught. Each institution makes a guess about which course(s) will be most beneficial to each student; since the course offerings differ from school to school, it could well be that the best course they have for you is course X, while at NIU we may offer other courses, and possibly not X at all, making the "best" course for you here be something very different.

On the other hand, if you successfully completed a fairly standard course somewhere else with a good grade, we can use that as evidence that you are ready for the next course here at NIU. In particular, we will usually recognize a grade of C or higher in "Intermediate Algebra" at an Illinois college as being sufficient to enter our Math 110; we will usually recognize a grade of C or higher in "College Algebra" at these schools as being sufficient to enroll in Math 155, 206, 210, or 211; and if this is the case at the other school as well, we will recognize another school's "Pre-Calculus", completed with a grade of C or higher, as sufficient preparation for our Math 229. These arrangements assume the courses are taught rigorously and at a standard college pace; in particular, high school courses with the same name are not necessarily sufficient to meet prerequisites, and so students entering NIU straight from high school must all take the MPE.

Some more general information for transfer students taking math courses is also available, and applies as well to "native" NIU students taking some courses at other institutions.

Director of Undergraduate Studies: Qingkai Kong
E-mail: Last modified: 09/19/2016 (djg)