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

By Catherine Gewertz — January 08, 2018 5 min read
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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.”

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