Are the ACT or SAT Good Substitutes for State Tests? New Study Raises Questions

By Catherine Gewertz — January 08, 2018 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

UPDATED A new study raises questions about a major shift in testing: substituting the SAT or ACT for states’ required high school assessments.

The study, by the Assessment Solutions Group, focuses on one slice of the testing question: whether it’s a good idea to let some districts substitute college-entrance exams for state tests. But the research also echoes broader questions about states’ decisions to use college-entrance tests, statewide, to measure student achievement.

The study concludes that letting Florida districts use the SAT or ACT instead of its own required Algebra 1 and 10th grade English/language arts tests wouldn’t be a good idea, for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Neither college-entrance exam covered all of Florida’s academic standards. The report’s authors noted that districts could supplement the ACT or SAT, adding additional questions so all the standards are covered, as other states have done when they use the SAT or ACT. But that choice adds cost and complexity to using a college-entrance exam, the study said.
  • The college-entrance exams produce different results than Florida’s own tests, which “casts serious doubt on the interchangeability of the three tests, and the soundness of making accountability decisions based on them.”
  • “Lack of transparency” about the ACT’s and the College Board’s accommodations policies leaves an open question about whether all students who need accommodations on the test can obtain scores they can use in college applications. (More on that here.)
  • Florida might not be able to back up a decision to let some districts use the SAT or ACT with the levels of evidence needed for approval by federal reviewers. (The U.S. Department of Education’s “peer review” process evaluates, among other things, evidence that a state’s chosen tests are “aligned” to its academic standards.)

Florida requested the ASG study because it has been exploring a new kind of testing flexibility offered by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

One provision of that law says states may decide to allow school districts to skip their state accountability tests for high school and use a “nationally recognized high school assessment"—in other words, the SAT or ACT—to measure student achievement.

We know that only a handful of states are considering granting this kind of flexibility to districts, for reasons that my colleague Alyson Klein explores today in a blog post on Politics K-12. (Even when the offer of flexibility was shiny and new, states weren’t showing much enthusiasm about it.)

The study raises questions that are larger than what happens if a state lets some districts substitute the SAT or ACT for its own tests. It revisits a question that has been hovering over an accelerating trend: More and more states have been dumping their high school tests and using college-entrance exams instead as their official high school achievement tests.

The question that has troubled testing experts is the one about “alignment"—Can a college-entrance exam accurately measure whether students have mastered the skills and knowledge in their states’ standards?

“I had exactly that thought as I was working on the report,” said Edward D. Roeber, the lead author of the ASG study. He oversaw assessment in Michigan, a state that uses a college-entrance exam for accountability, and he has consulted on the development of other large-scale tests.

“States seem to have this belief that, well, we can just drop our current high school exam, whether it’s PARCC, Smarter Balanced, or a custom-developed test, and we can get a two-fer by using one of these college-entrance tests. But I’m not sure they’ve studied it carefully enough.”

It’s not that it’s impossible to use the SAT or ACT to measure mastery of state content standards, Roeber said. It’s possible. But states shouldn’t assume the switch will work for them. They must conduct diligent alignment studies that will identify how well a college-entrance exam covers their academic standards. Since standards differ from state to state, each state must conduct its own alignment study, or it can’t claim that the SAT or ACT is fully “aligned” to its standards, Roeber said.

As of a year ago, a dozen states were using the SAT or ACT as their official high school achievement test for accountability purposes. Since the SAT has been redesigned, states that use it have not yet gone through the federal peer-review process. But at least a couple of states that use the ACT got letters from the U.S. Department of Education last year asking for more evidence of alignment to state standards and/or a deeper dive into accommodations policies.

Questions about using college-entrance exams instead of standards-based tests all boil down to a choice, said Scott Marion, the executive director of the Center for Assessment, which helps states with large-scale assessment.

“Everything in assessment is a choice,” Marion said. “Do you use a test like the SAT or ACT, and focus on predicting whether students will be successful in college? Or do you use a test designed to cover academic standards? Which one are you trying to measure?”

Using a college-entrance exam without verifying that it does a good job covering a state’s standards risks sending confusing messages to schools, Marion said. Teachers will wonder whether they should be teaching the content of the standards their state adopted, or the material covered in a college-entrance exam, he said.

UPDATED ACT spokesman Ed Colby said that the company supported the study by offering information for analysis, but added that alignment results differ based on the methodology used. ACT backs “a more holistic method of alignment,” he said in an email. The ACT believes that its college-entrance exam is “a valid measure of college and career readiness and well-aligned to state college and career readiness standards,” he said.

The College Board defended the use of the SAT as a measure of high school achievement. Company spokesman Zach Goldberg said in an email that using the test for accountability saves testing time and “measures students on what they’re already learning in the classroom.” He said that the SAT “meets or exceeds every one of the standards for statewide assessments” in the Every Student Succeeds Act, including alignment to state academic standards.

“The College Board has conducted studies demonstrating the alignment of the new SAT with the current standards in all 50 states,” Goldberg said. “The SAT strongly aligns with Florida’s own standards. We stand ready to support states who want to use the SAT for accountability.”

Get High School & Beyond posts delivered to your inbox as soon as they’re published. Sign up here. Also, for news and analysis of issues that shape adolescents’ preparation for work and higher education.

Related Tags:

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.

Commenting has been disabled on effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Assessment Spotlight Spotlight on Assessment in 2021
In this Spotlight, review newest assessment scores, see how districts will catch up with their supports for disabled students, plus more.
Assessment 'Nation's Report Card' Has a New Reading Framework, After a Drawn-Out Battle Over Equity
The new framework for the National Assessment of Educational Progress will guide development of the 2026 reading test.
10 min read
results 925693186 02
Assessment Opinion Q&A Collections: Assessment
Scores of educators share commentaries on the use of assessments in schools.
5 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
Assessment Standardized Tests Could Be in Jeopardy in Wake of Biden Decisions, Experts Say
Has the Biden administration shored up statewide tests this year only to risk undermining long-term public backing for them?
6 min read
Image of a test sheet.