A.C.T. Unveils New Assessment, Planning System

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WASHINGTON--American College Testing, best known for its college-admissions test, last week unveiled an educational-planning and assessment system that will measure student abilities at critical transition points, beginning as early as the 8th grade.

The Education Planning and Assessment System, known as EPAS, consists of some existing programs, like the A.C.T. admissions test, as well as some new ones. It is designed to help students determine their post-high-school goals, gauge their strengths and weaknesses, and plan to meet their academic and career objectives.

The system will also enable schools to monitor students' progress throughout their secondary school careers, A.C.T. officials said.

"So much assessment in schools looks backward--'Did we do what we said we would do?' '' Richard Ferguson, the president of the A.C.T., said at a press conference here. "EPAS is designed specifically to look forward.''

Mr. Ferguson said that school districts and states can use all or part of the system, and that Tennessee and Wisconsin have already incorporated components of it into their statewide assessment programs. In addition, the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools has agreed to use the system as part of its accreditation process for schools in its region.

By itself, the system will not bring about school improvements, Mr. Ferguson acknowledged. Rather, he said, it provides information that will help schools determine how to make changes.

"No one can simply purchase [the system], gather the information, and expect improvement will occur,'' Mr. Ferguson said. "This is one important part of a school-improvement strategy. It provides a baseline for additional actions that will bring about results.''

Consistent With Reform Themes

The new A.C.T. program joins a growing list of efforts addressing two major themes of school reform: developing standards for student achievement and assessments to gauge student progress against the standards, and improving the transition from school to work.

The program is consistent with the effort to set national standards, Mr. Ferguson said, because it contains assessments that measure students' higher-order thinking skills in key subjects and will help students who choose to go to college improve their academic preparation.

By contrast, he noted, many students unwittingly foreclose their options by failing to take the academic coursework necessary for postsecondary education.

The National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988, a federal survey of some 25,000 8th graders, found that, although two-thirds of the 8th graders said they planned to attend graduate or professional school, only one-third of them planned to enroll in college-preparatory coursework in high school.

"In reality, a large number of 8th graders determine what their options [will be] four years later, and they can't go back,'' Mr. Ferguson said.

At the same time, for those planning to go directly into the workforce, he said, the program will help students plan to begin their preparation and will assess their work-related skills.

"EPAS is designed to help students set ambitious, meaningful goals, and take steps to achieve them,'' he said.

The system will also help school-improvement efforts, he predicted, by providing information on student performance over time.

Using the data, Mr. Ferguson said, "educators can demonstrate in detail how well they are meeting student needs.''

Four Main Elements

Specifically, the system consists of four main elements:

  • An 8th-grade assessment, known as EXPLORE, which consists of multiple-choice and performance tasks--including an optional direct-writing assessment--to measure student skills in English, reading, mathematics, and science. It also contains an assessment of students' interests, study skills, and preliminary future plans.
  • A 10th-grade assessment, known as PLAN, which is a modified version of the testing firm's P\ACT+ program that was aimed at helping students begin to prepare for the college-admission test. The PLAN assessment will show student progress on the skills measured by the EXPLORE assessment, as well as start students' planning for their post-high-school careers.
  • The A.C.T. test, which will be linked to the previous assessments to show progress over the past four years.
  • Work Keys, a new assessment that measures student abilities on a dozen skills identified as critical to the workplace, measured in workplace-type settings. Similar to Worklink, a program created by the Educational Testing Service, the Work Keys assessment will also be linked to the EXPLORE and PLAN assessments to show progress over time.

In addition to the assessments, the program includes an academic-information-management system, or AIM, that provides schools with detailed information on students' career plans, coursework plans, and educational achievement.

American College Testing, which is based in Iowa City, will also for the first time offer workshops and training to assist teachers and administrators in interpreting its test results and translating them for use in the classroom, Mr. Ferguson said.

But he added that districts and states can adapt the program as they see fit.

"It's very versatile,'' he said. "It's a set of resources, rather than a formula-driven program.''

Adopted in Two States

Although the program is new, two states have already adopted it for use statewide.

Wisconsin administered the EXPLORE and PLAN assessments to more than 85 percent of the state's 8th and 10th graders in 1992; Tennessee is using PLAN on a voluntary basis and will administer Work Keys to 37,000 graduating high school seniors this spring.

Tennessee also plans to make both of those programs mandatory for all students beginning in 1994-95, according to Charles E. Smith, the state's commissioner of education.

"There was almost nothing in existence in Tennessee in K-12 that provided the opportunity for students to benefit from diagnostic testing, and allow teachers to use the results and develop strategies [for them],'' Mr. Smith said at the press conference here. "This is the missing link.''

Mr. Smith also noted that the state plans to use the assessment results in its report cards on each school.

"This will allow the people of Tennessee to evaluate the degree to which high schools are achieving 'value added,' '' he said.

In addition to the state uses, the North Central accrediting agency is planning to use the EPAS system as part of its school-accrediting process, according to John S. Kemp, the Illinois state director of the agency.

The association is also using the program in a pilot project, currently being tested in Michigan and Ohio, to provide a "transition endorsement'' to schools that can document that they have been able to advance a significant number of students through the transition to the next phase of schooling.

"This is a powerful tool schools can use in determining whether their outcomes are achieved,'' Mr. Kemp said last week.

Vol. 12, Issue 24

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