Assessment

All Students To Take College-Entrance Test in Ill., Colo.

By Jessica L. Sandham — June 21, 2000 5 min read

All high school juniors in Colorado and Illinois will be required to take a traditional college-entrance exam next spring—regardless of whether they consider themselves to be college material.

The Illinois board of education last week approved a contract with ACT Inc., and plans to give each of the state’s high school juniors two different types of the Iowa City, Iowa-based organization’s exams next spring.

In addition to administering the traditional ACT, state officials say they want to gauge workplace skills using the ACT’s Work Keys tests in reading and mathematics. The tests will be administered as a part of an intensive two-day session that will also include a state-developed component that measures students’ mastery of the state’s own standards.

The testing package, called the Prairie State Achievement Exam, will replace the 10th grade version of the Illinois Standards Achievement Test—an exam that some critics complained held little relevance for students.

In Colorado, meanwhile, Gov. Bill Owens signed into law a testing and accountability package in April that included a requirement that all high school juniors begin taking the ACT next spring. But, unlike Illinois, Colorado will not complement the ACT with its own 11th grade test.

Both states’ efforts reflect a larger national push to link K-12 and postsecondary schooling, said Kathy Christie, a policy analyst for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

“We have a lot of states looking to develop K-16 systems,” Ms. Christie said. “Having juniors take the ACT will tie in more with the higher education system. It kills two birds with one stone.”

Motivation a Factor

State education officials in Illinois opted to include the ACT college-entrance exam in their battery of tests for high school students in part because they wanted to make all of the exams more meaningful for students.

Likewise, they sought input from the state’s business and postsecondary education communities when they were crafting the testing program, and have encouraged them to factor the Prairie State scores into their hiring and admissions decisions, said Tom Hernandez, a spokesman for the state education department.

In addition, Mr. Hernandez said, state officials are looking into giving students a different type of “real-life incentive” to do well on the test: They’re negotiating with auto-insurance companies about the possibility of offering lower rates to students who perform well on the tests.

“There are kids out there who have no use for state assessments,” Mr. Hernandez said. “They are not punished for doing poorly, and so they think it doesn’t matter. By combining this test with a nationally renowned and accepted college-entrance exam, you instantly add more credibility.”

‘College Is for Me’

Meanwhile, in Colorado, state officials say they also hope that having all students take the test will act as something of a motivator to those 11th graders who are qualified to attend college, but hadn’t previously considered it.

Forty percent of the state’s students currently sit out the ACT every year, and the governor wanted to ensure that all students have every opportunity to consider college if they’re qualified and interested, said Terri Rayburn, a senior education analyst for the governor.

“We think more kids will say, ‘Hey, I did well on this. Maybe college is for me after all,’” Ms. Rayburn said.

But some observers questioned whether these newly required tests, along with other high-stakes state tests, could ultimately be harmful to those students who aren’t interested in attending college.

The end result of asking every student to take a college-entrance exam is that vocational and other programs that aren’t designed to prepare students for college will be devalued, said Monty Neill, the executive director of FairTest, a watchdog group based in Cambridge, Mass., that is critical of standardized testing.

“There’s a craziness in asking everyone to do everything,” Mr. Neill said. “We have people who learn in different ways all being treated alike, being told to take different tests that will, in whole or in part, fit poorly.”

Both Colorado and Illinois opted to incorporate the ACT into their testing programs after examining how the content covered in the exam compared with their respective state standards and found significant overlap, said Donald J. Carstensen, the vice president for educational services at ACT Inc.

“The test fits because it measures what’s going on in schools,” said Mr. Carstensen. “It measures the content and higher- order thinking skills that are incorporated by the content standards in the two states.”

Alignment Questioned

However, Michael W. Kirst, a Stanford University education professor and an expert on testing, said that Illinois’ willingness to add an examination that tests students on content standards not covered by the ACT, as well as a work-skills test, is far preferable to Colorado’s approach.

By using multiple tests to meet different needs, education officials in Illinois will eventually be able to gauge progress in different areas more accurately, Mr. Kirst said.

“This is really much more creative, and I’ve not heard of anything like it in any other state,” he said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Kirst argues that Colorado’s approach of using a single college-entrance exam for 11th graders is “just a pancake reform,” given that the state plans to continue using its existing state assessment for 10th graders.

He also questioned whether the ACT would fully align with the state’s standards.

“You’re laying one test on top of another,” Mr. Kirst said.

And while Illinois’ new testing program appears to draw fairly broad support from the state’s various education associations, the Colorado program has been viewed more skeptically.

Phil Fox, the deputy executive director for legislation for the Colorado Association of School Executives, said he is concerned that the state’s overall ACT results will take a dramatic plunge as soon as all students, not just those who are specifically college-bound, begin taking the test.

“There are obviously certain kids who should not be taking the ACT test,” Mr. Fox said. “I just hope the state doesn’t come out looking foolish because the scores will drop precipitously.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 2000 edition of Education Week as All Students To Take College-Entrance Test in Ill., Colo.

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