ACT to Drop ‘Explore’ and ‘Plan’ Tests

By Catherine Gewertz — January 03, 2014 4 min read
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ACT Inc., is offering its Explore and Plan tests for the last time this school year as it gears up to debut a new suite of tests for grades 3-11 that are aimed at capturing a big chunk of the common-standards testing market.

Word has been trickling out slowly in states that use the ACT college admissions exam and the tests that lead up to it: Explore, which is typically given in 8th or 9th grade, and Plan, most often given in the 10th grade. Paul Weeks, ACT’s vice president of customer engagement, confirmed that the Iowa City-based testing company is replacing Plan and Explore with the ACT Aspire system, rather than keeping the older products in play at the same time.

“It doesn’t make much sense to create a [grade] 3-11 aligned system and have these tests sitting out there,” he said in an interview.

The decision affects school districts across the country that contribute to the 1.8 million annual administrations of Plan and Explore, and would now presumably need a replacement. Most affected are the 17 states that administer one or both tests to all students in a given grade.

Clearly, ACT intends its Aspire system to fill the holes created by the disappearance of Plan and Explore, as well as those created by states’ shifts to new common-core assessments. One state, Alabama, has already announced that it will use the ACT Aspire system instead of the tests being designed by PARCC or Smarter Balanced, the two federally funded assessment consortia. There are rumblings that more such announcements are not far off.

Aspire, which will be available this coming spring, is being pitched aggressively to states as an alternative to PARCC and Smarter Balanced, which will be available in the spring of 2015. Not only is it cheaper, ACT officials point out, but it is “modular” as well: States can choose just some grade levels or subjects.

PARCC and Smarter Balanced officials said that their member states have not shown interest in using only one subject. When it comes to grade-level options, Smarter Balanced is offering states the option of using its tests for grades 3-8 with or without its grade 11 test, said spokeswoman Jacqueline King. They may also add tests for grades 9, 10 or 12 if they wish, she said. A PARCC spokeswoman said member states may administer any or all grade levels of their tests in grades 3-11, but there is no secondary pricing structure.

The Aspire system will cost states $20 per student for five subject areas: mathematics, science, reading, writing, and English. That’s less than the price estimates PARCC ($29.50) and Smarter Balanced (about $22 or $27, depending on the package) have issued for their tests in English/language arts and math. (ACT has been offering early adopters a promotional price of $11.70 per student.)

Aspire will be given online, although paper-and-pencil versions will be available—for an extra $5 to $6 per student‐"for the foreseeable future,” Weeks said.

A Test Profile Emerges

Unlike Plan and Explore, the Aspire tests will include more than multiple-choice question types, Weeks said. There will be shorter and longer constructed-response questions, and the computer version will have technology-enhanced items that allow some interactivity, he said.

There is no sign, however, that they will include the types of lengthy performance tasks that PARCC and Smarter Balanced are designing to engage students in more complex analyses.

Selected information about Aspire’s blueprint shows that it plans three constructed response questions on its 60-minute reading test, along with 18-19 multiple choice items and a few—or no—technology enhanced items. Its writing test appears to consist of one 30-minute constructed response item, with no other item types. A 30- to 40-minute English test, designed to gauge students’ ability to revise and edit texts, will be composed of multiple-choice and technology-enhanced items.

The science and math tests, which will run 55 to 65 minutes, are heavier on constructed response items, and appear to have more questions overall than the other subjects. Exemplar items in all five subject areas are posted online.

One tricky transition issue for Aspire will be its use of a different score scale than the one used for the ACT college admissions test. As nervous college applicants know, that exam is scored on a two-digit score scale, from 1 to 36. Plan is scored from 1 to 32, and Explore from 1 to 25.

The Aspire tests, however, will be scored on a yet-to-be-determined three-digit score scale, to facilitate finer-grained reporting on results, Weeks said. The testmaker will create tables to explain the score relationships.

“The grade 3-11 tests need to be reported in a granular fashion to get down to where students might need help,” Weeks said. “A two-digit score scale doesn’t lend itself to that kind of reporting; there aren’t enough score points.”

As we’ve reported to you, ACT is hardly the only player on the hyper-competitive common-standards testing landscape. Some states are sticking firmly with PARCC or Smarter Balanced, while others take a wait-and-see stance as they explore other options.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.