College & Workforce Readiness

Don’t Use SAT and ACT as Your High School Tests, Study Urges

By Catherine Gewertz — March 13, 2018 6 min read
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States should not use the SAT or ACT to measure high school achievement because those exams don’t fully reflect states’ academic standards, and could distort what’s taught in the classroom, according to a study released Tuesday.

The paper, released by Achieve, which pushes for high-quality standards and tests, calls for a halt in an assessment trend that’s been picking up steam in recent years: states using the SAT or ACT instead of their high school tests. This school year, 13 states are using one of those college-admissions tests statewide to measure high school achievement.

Testing experts have long raised questions about using the SAT or ACT as an official measure of high school achievement. They argue that college-admissions exams can’t do a good job of measuring students’ mastery of their state’s academic standards because they were not crafted to gauge students’ grasp of those standards. They were designed to do something different, which is to predict students’ chance of success in college.

At the heart of Achieve’s paper is this question: How well do the SAT and ACT measure mastery of a state’s academic standards?

In the world of testing, that’s called “alignment,” and it’s a core principle of the field that a test has to be well aligned to what it’s trying to measure—in this case, the knowledge and skills in state standards—in order to produce valid results.

‘We Respectfully Disagree’

Both the College Board and the ACT disputed the new paper’s contention that their tests aren’t well enough aligned to states’ standards.

“While ACT values the opinions of other experts in the field, we respectfully disagree with the contention that assessment of state academic standards and assessment of college preparedness are mutually exclusive,” the company says in a statement.

The College Board said it has conducted studies showing that the SAT is aligned “with the current standards in all 50 states.” The exam also “meets or exceeds” all requirements for state assessments in federal law, including that they align to state standards, the group said.

“The SAT is the only college-entrance exam that has been redesigned in accordance with the current state standards that guide teachers’ work in classrooms around the country,” Michele McNeil, the College Board’s executive director of K-12 and global policy and external relations, says in a statement.

Achieve, which played a key role in developing the PARCC common-core test, examined three recent alignment studies. All three find the college-admissions exams lacking, although to differing degrees. Here are the highlights:

Study of the ACT’s alignment to the Common Core State Standards, by Achieve, 2018: Less than half of the questions in English/language arts, and less than half of the items in math, were judged to be aligned to the high school expectations in the common core. Questions that purported to measure mastery of writing standards didn’t ask students to produce writing. Achieve says that in its own technical manual, ACT acknowledges that 40 percent to 43 percent of its math items measure pre-8th-grade math content.

Study of the feasibility of letting districts swap Florida state tests for the ACT or SAT, by the Assessment Solutions Group, 2018: Neither the SAT nor the ACT fully cover Florida’s academic standards. Either test would require the state to add more questions to the college-admissions exams for either one to reflect Florida’s math and English/language arts standards. It suggests the revision or replacement of five to seven questions in the SAT, and 10 or more in the ACT. The study also found that results from the ACT and SAT would not be comparable to those from Florida’s own Algebra 1 or 10th grade English tests, “casting doubt on the interchangeability” of the three tests.

Study of the SAT’s alignment to the Common Core State Standards, by the Human Resources Research Organization, 2016, for Delaware and Maine: The report found that 76 percent of the English/language arts questions—a level it describes as “reasonably aligned”—and 47 percent of the math items were fully aligned to the common core, which both states use as their academic standards. The report singled out particularly weak coverage of geometry and statistics, and recommended that states add more math questions to adequately reflect those standards.

Another alignment study, which was not included in Achieve’s report, found a “strong or moderate match” between the SAT and Connecticut’s common-core standards. That 2016 study, by a team from the University of Connecticut, found the weakest coverage of math standards in functions and geometry.

A similar study done for Wisconsin on the ACT, and also not included in Achieve’s paper, found that the ACT measures the skills and knowledge in the state’s academic standards. It notes, however, that in math, some ACT questions focused on skills “typically addressed at lower grade levels.”

Alignment studies are wonky. But Achieve argues that they’re important because what’s measured on tests exerts a tremendous influence on what’s taught in classrooms.

“The danger in using admissions tests as accountability tests for high school is that many high school teachers will be driven to devote scarce course time to middle school topics, water down the high school content they are supposed to teach in mathematics, or too narrowly focus on a limited range of skills in [English/language arts],” the paper said.

Achieve urges states not to adopt the SAT or ACT to measure high school achievement for accountability. Administering a college-admissions test statewide to get more students thinking about—and applying to—college is an “appropriate” use of those tests, but using them to measure achievement is “ill-advised,” the paper says.

A Good Match?

It’s a tricky policy issue, because when states opt for college-admissions tests instead of standards-based tests, they get benefits that resonate in the wake of a major backlash against overtesting, said Robert A. Schaeffer, the public education director of FairTest, which opposes high-stakes standardized tests.

“This is a two-edged sword,” he said. “[Using the SAT or ACT] can reduce the volume of testing. And it saves parents money by shifting the cost of those tests from their checkbooks to the taxpayers.”

But there’s still the question of whether the tests are a mismatch for measuring achievement, rather than college readiness, he said.

“It’s a truth-in-advertising thing,” Schaeffer said. “If you want a test to give you accurate information about students, teachers, schools or systems, you have to know that the test measures what it claims to measure.”

In its paper, Achieve urges states not to use the SAT or ACT as statewide achievement measures. But it also urges caution if states are considering giving individual districts the freedom to substitute a college-entrance exam for a state high school test. That’s a new—but still not-too-popular—form of testing flexibility offered in the Every Student Succeeds Act. Allowing such a choice could create “significant comparability issues” between the college-admissions exams and state high school tests, Achieve argues. It might also let districts “shop around” for the test that puts them in the best light.

States that already use the SAT or ACT to measure high school achievement statewide should consider augmenting those tests with additional or revised items to get a fuller representation of their academic standards, the Achieve paper argues. That’s not unprecedented. Maine and Illinois, for instance, have augmented those exams to more fully cover their standards.

ACT spokesman Ed Colby said that the company is “absolutely committed” to helping states if they want to augment the ACT, but maintains that augmenting “only supplements, rather than establishes, the validity of the ACT for ESSA accountability purposes.”

The College Board did not respond to a question about its willingness to work with states that wish to augment the test.

A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 2018 edition of Education Week as Study: Don’t Use ACT, SAT to Gauge School Achievement


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