College & Workforce Readiness

In More States, It’s Now ACT or SAT for All

By Lynn Olson — September 12, 2006 9 min read
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Whether high school students take college-admissions tests used to be an individual decision. But a growing number of states are requiring that step and even making the exams a core part of their own testing systems.

Proponents argue that having all teenagers take the exams will encourage more young people to think about college and motivate them to take state tests seriously. But the policies also raise knotty issues, including whether the scores should be used to determine if schools have made adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

“While we want kids to be better prepared for their future and go to college, can we use the same exam for AYP purposes, too?” said Edward Roeber, the testing director for the Michigan Department of Education. “I think the jury is still out in Michigan.”

Michigan, Illinois, and Maine are all waiting to hear from the U.S. Department of Education about whether they can use a college-admissions test as a key element for rating schools under the federal law.

Maine gave the SAT to all high school juniors for the first time this past spring. Michigan plans to give the ACT, the other national college-entrance exam, to all high school juniors next spring, pending federal approval. Kentucky plans to give the ACT starting in 2007-08, and other states are considering it as well.

All 11th graders in Colorado and Illinois have taken the ACT to measure their knowledge of English, mathematics, reading, and science since the 2000-01 school year, although Colorado does not use the tests for federal accountability purposes.

“There are probably eight to a dozen states who are in some stage of serious examination of whether this is an option for them or not,” said Jon L. Erickson, the vice president of educational services for the Iowa City, Iowa-based ACT Inc.

State officials say a primary reason for making the tests mandatory and free of charge is to encourage more high school students to prepare for and enroll in postsecondary education.

“It’s our belief that you must graduate college-, career-, and citizenship-ready,” said Susan A. Gendron, Maine’s commissioner of education. “That’s our message to our state and our young people.”

Maine had an 11th grade test that had been in place for 20 years, she said, but anecdotal data suggested students “didn’t take it seriously.”

“And our scores were stagnant on that assessment for the last five years,” Ms. Gendron said.

About three-quarters of Maine seniors were already taking the SAT, which is also used by the state’s public colleges and universities for placement and admissions decisions, so the test had currency. It also saved time. Maine juniors took the exam on a Saturday, compared with the four or five school days previously devoted to state testing. Michigan’s testing window, formerly spread out over three weeks, will be two to three days under the new plan.

Alignment Challenges

Some analysts see a trade-off, though, given that college-admissions tests do not always line up closely with states’ academic-content standards.

“When it comes to the ACT or the SAT, the obvious upside is that it’s got credibility with higher education and with parents,” said Matthew Gandal, the executive vice president of the Washington-based Achieve Inc., a nonprofit group that advocates tying standards for high school graduation to those for college admission. “The challenge in doing this is the alignment issue.”

Maine has submitted results from both an internal alignment study and one conducted by Norman L. Webb, a senior research scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to the federal government. Mr. Webb found that the state’s content standards were aligned with the SAT in reading, but that the state expected students to learn more probability and statistics than the SAT’s math section measures, Ms. Gendron said.

Maine has proposed adding some questions to its high school science test, which will be given for the first time next spring, and to use students’ performance on those items for calculating AYP in addition to students’ SAT scores. “We think that’s going to be an acceptable approach,” said Ms. Gendron, who is scheduled to meet Sept. 20 with Henry L. Johnson, the federal Education Department’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.

States Using ACT, SAT

Although a number of states are incorporating college-entrance tests into their state testing programs, their approaches differ.

COLORADO: All 11th graders in public schools take the Colorado ACT, or Co-ACT. The results are included on student transcripts and are part of the state accountability system for high schools. Scores are not used to calculate progress under the No Child Left Behind Act. The Co-ACT is completely separate from standards-based tests in reading, writing, math, and science given in grades 3-10.

ILLINOIS: Public school juniors take the ACT, the reading and math portions of WorkKeys (a work-readiness assessment), and a science test as part of the Prairie State Achievement Exam. PSAE scores in reading and math are used to calculate progress under the NCLB law. Students’ ACT and WorkKeys scores are mailed to their homes.

MAINE: All Maine high school juniors take the SAT. Students receive standard SAT reports and official scores they may use to apply to college. The state is seeking approval to use the scores to measure adequate yearly progress under NCLB.

MICHIGAN: The new Michigan Merit Examination for grade 11 includes the ACT Plus Writing; the reading and math portions of WorkKeys; and state-developed tests in math, science, and social studies. The state is seeking approval to use MME scores to measure progress under NCLB.

TENNESSEE: College-entrance tests are not part of the Tennessee assessment system, but state law requires that all students have the opportunity to take such exams. The state provides each district with $27 per high school senior, with districts covering the remaining cost. Students receive a voucher to pay for taking the ACT, the SAT, or WorkKeys one time.

SOURCE: Education Week

Michigan also conducted a series of alignment studies and has proposed double-counting some test questions to measure standards in different subjects and to add items to its testing system. Starting in March, juniors in Michigan are slated to take the ACT Plus Writing assessment, the reading and math portions of the WorkKeys exam (an ACT Inc. test that measures work readiness), and state tests in science, mathematics, and social studies as part of the new Michigan Merit Examination.

But some educators and observers contend that, despite such studies, neither the ACT nor the SAT is designed to measure students’ mastery of state content standards or to rate schools.

“This is an inappropriate use of the instrument, because you’re not using it as it was designed,” said Ben A. Milster, the guidance director for Mt. Blue High School in Farmington, Maine, and the immediate past president of the Maine Counseling Association. That group, along with the American Counseling Association and the National Association for College Admission Counseling, opposed using the SAT as Maine’s high school test.

“It’s going to divert even more time from rich learning to test preparation, because now you suddenly have a different test to prep for,” argued Robert Schaeffer, the public education director of the National Center for Fair & Opening Testing, or FairTest, a Cambridge, Mass.-based watchdog group that also opposed the adoption of the SAT in Maine.

One of the concerns in using college-entrance tests for school accountability is that parents often enroll their children in private test-coaching programs designed to boost scores. Since more-affluent families are more likely to have access to such services, the coaching could bolster results in some schools but not others.

“I would think states would have to figure out how to adjust for that,” said Robert F. Sexton, the executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, an advocacy group based in Lexington, Ky. “Maybe it’s a problem that could be solved, but I haven’t even heard it discussed.”

To help level the playing field, Maine negotiated with the New York City-based College Board, which sponsors the SAT, to give all high school students access to an online SAT-preparation program. In Michigan, the Michigan Virtual University will provide all public and private high schools with access to online test-prep materials.

But Mr. Roeber, the Michigan testing director, said he’s talked with at least one principal who’s already purchased extra test coaching for his students, “so you’ll still have disparities.”

Mr. Erickson of the ACT said the best preparation is for students to take rigorous, in-depth coursework. “It comes down more to the depth and quality and quantity of the coursework or the curriculum that schools are providing,” he said, “and that’s probably the uneven playing field.”

Play by the Rules

For students to use the test results for college admissions, states also must abide by the ACT’s and the College Board’s standards for secure test administration, which are often far more stringent than those used by states.

For instance, no one involved in administering the ACT can be related to any student who would be eligible to take the exam that year—whether a child, a nephew, or a grandchild. That rule could pose a challenge for states trying to offer the test in every public high school on a given day.

Initially, the National Collegiate Athletic Association refused to consider the Colorado ACT sufficiently secure to qualify students academically for playing college sports. So, until this year, Colorado teenagers applying as athletes to Division 1 or 2 schools got a state-funded voucher to take the ACT during a regular Saturday administration. The NCAA changed its policy, effective this school year.

Providing appropriate accommodations for students with disabilities and English-language learners has also proved complex, since states typically permit some accommodations that are not allowed by either the SAT or the ACT. Although eligible students may still use such accommodations, the resulting scores count for state and federal accountability purposes but not for college entrance.

“The point is—and this is a big point—that the accommodations component cannot be instituted on the day of the test or even a few days before,” warned Elizabeth B. Celva, the director of student assessment for the Colorado Department of Education. “There has to be sufficient planning of at least a month for a Colorado-allowed accommodation to take place.”

“I think for students with disabilities, schools will find a lot of flexibility in the accommodations,” said Mr. Roeber of Michigan. “For English-language learners, there are real problems. I think it’s unfortunate that we don’t have access to a broader array of accommodations for English-language learners that result in college-reportable scores.”

Despite such challenges and the cost—about $43 per student in Maine and $73 per student in Michigan, including the state’s wraparound assessments—states that have required college-entrance testing the longest say it is worth it.

College Enrollment Up

In Colorado, about 97 percent of high school students now take the ACT. “What we have seen, and we don’t know if we can directly attribute it to the Colorado ACT, is a rise in college enrollment in state colleges and universities of about 14 percent” in the past five years, said Ms. Celva.

“The conversation in Illinois has changed dramatically about high school,” said Rebecca A. McCabe, the state administrator for student assessment. Illinois gives both the ACT and WorkKeys as part of the Prairie State Achievement Exam. “The positive is that there are high schools that are really now rolling up their sleeves and looking at curriculum,” Ms. McCabe said.

Mr. Erickson of the ACT said that student preparation for college has improved over time in both Colorado and Illinois. And test scores generally have held steady or increased, even as test-taking rates have climbed.

Illinois’ ACT results for the graduating class of 2006 reflected the largest increase in the last five years. The 41 percent of test-takers who reported that they took a core college-preparatory curriculum had an average composite score of 22.6 out of a possible 36—the highest score since all Illinois public school 11th graders starting taking the exam in 2001.

But Mr. Schaeffer of FairTest questions who ultimately benefits from the new policies. For students, he said, “the act of just taking the SAT or ACT is, in itself, not likely to change college-going behavior significantly.”

True, students might wind up on the recruitment lists of colleges they’d never thought about. “But is that sufficient justification?” Mr. Schaeffer said. “I’m sure there are ways to make kids college-aware without requiring the test.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 13, 2006 edition of Education Week as In More States, It’s Now ACT Or SAT for All


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