College & Workforce Readiness

State Initiatives Widen Reach of ACT, SAT Tests

By Caralee J. Adams — October 28, 2014 7 min read
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Nevada and Missouri next spring will join a rapidly growing number of states that are shelling out money for every 11th grader in public high school to take the ACT or SAT college-entrance exams.

Nearly half of states—and individual school districts in most others—have contracted with the nation’s two biggest college-testing programs for some form of wide-scale administration in high school so that no student will have an excuse for passing up the opportunity to take one of the tests.

But the growth in statewide college-admissions testing also comes at a time when the testing landscape in high schools is uncertain and increasingly crowded. Separate K-12 assessments tied to the Common Core State Standards in reading and mathematics are coming on line in the spring, and some states are mulling which testing route to take with their older students: Should the college-admissions tests be another layer of testing, or could they do double duty for accountability purposes?

“I hate the notion of these scores being used for 50 million purposes, but on the other hand I love the idea of not filling our students’ days with test after test,” said Jim Rawlins, a former president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling and the admissions director at the University of Oregon in Eugene. He says patience and evaluation are needed to determine which assessment will be the best predictor of a students’ success in college.

Assessment Landscape

Currently, 20 states fund ACT testing for students. Districts in 25 additional states contract with the Iowa City, Iowa-based testing company to do the same for all of their high school juniors. The rival SAT, which is owned by the New York City-based College Board, is given at no cost to students during the school day in three states and the District of Columbia, along with individual districts in 13 states. ACT officials, in fact, attribute one-third of the dramatic increase in ACT test-takers in recent years to the adoption of statewide testing programs in 10 states. (Nationwide, the ACT, which began contracting with states in 2001, nine years before the SAT, has now surpassed the SAT with 1.85 million test-takers in the class of 2014, versus 1.67 million for the SAT.) The idea behind the trend is to give all students an early snapshot of how ready they are for postsecondary work and encourage more to apply to college who might not have otherwise.

States Help Extend Reach of College-Entrance Exams

Nearly half of all states—and many districts—now pay for public school students to take either the ACT or SAT college-admissions tests. A few of those states, such as Illinois and Arkansas, permit districts to opt out of the testing. In Alaska, students can decide whether they want to participate in the tests.


SOURCE: ACT Inc., College Board

“It gives currency for access to higher education opportunities,” said Allison L. Serafin, the vice president of the state board of education in Nevada, adding that the ACT is recognizable outside of K-12 and can be used for college admission even a few years after graduation.

Yet, some are questioning the value of more testing at a time when some education leaders—and even President Barack Obama—are calling for less. Others wonder what tests districts will decide to administer when the 11th grade, common-core-aligned assessments are rolled out soon from the Smarter Balanced testing consortium and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.

One Test, Several Uses

Idaho State Superintendent Tom Luna, for example, said his state is anxious to have a single 11th grade assessment. As long as the College Board can assure the state that the SAT aligns with its standards, he would prefer the SAT over the new Smarter Balanced assessment. But Maine, rather than requiring SAT testing for juniors, as it has in the past, this year will make the SAT optional for students (although the state will still pay for it). The state will switch to mandating the Smarter Balanced assessment.

The desire to minimize testing, however, contributes to the growing uses for the college-admissions tests. While traditionally used to gauge college- and career- readiness, the tests are now being used in some states as a component in accountability measures or high school ratings, in lieu of a high school exit exam or as a graduation requirement.

For example:

• In Mississippi, all 35,000 of the state’s high school juniors will be expected to take the ACT for the first time on March 3 at a cost of $1.3 million, or $34 per student, thanks to a one-year legislative appropriation. Results will be tied to the state’s school accountability model, but students will still have to take state high school exit exams.

• In Kentucky, state law has required schools to give the ACT to students since 2008, and college-going rates have since improved. Results are used for accountability purposes, and every postsecondary institution in the state has agreed to accept students’ scores for placement into credit-bearing courses.

• Idaho chose the SAT three years ago after an open bidding process. Students must take the $42-per-student exam to graduate, but no minimum cut score is required. Total SAT score growth year-to-year is factored into the state’s high school rating system.

• Missouri’s state department of education, along with teachers’ unions and several professional education associations, recommended statewide ACT testing, which was approved by the state board of education and funded with $4.2 million. The state will continue to use high school end-of-course exams for annual yearly progress reports required under the No Child Left Behind Act, though, rather than using the ACT for accountability.

Opinions vary on the wisdom of using the college-admissions tests for a variety of purposes. Jeff Fuller, the current president of the NACAC, said higher education welcomes the statewide testing to improve access to college, but counseling professionals are concerned about the broadening use of the exams.

“That’s not how the tests were created. The tests were created to determine preparation for college-level material,” said Mr. Fuller, who is director of student recruitment at the University of Houston. “To pin this to teacher performance or evaluation or how districts or schools are performing … is not how they were written.”

He said college-entrance exam results should be just a piece in any broader evaluation.

Alignment Needed

Paul J. Weeks, the vice president of client relations for the ACT, essentially concurred on that point. He said that the ACT test can be used appropriately for other purposes, as long as it is aligned with the state’s academic standards and is only one factor in an accountability plan or graduation requirements.

“It can be an important part of a puzzle, but never should be used as a sole criterion,” he said.

College Board officials declined any comment on expanded use of the SAT.

More research is needed on using both tests for ways other than they were designed, said Lauress Wise, a principal scientist with the Human Resources Research Organization in Seaside, Calif. “I just would like to see a little closer study that there is an alignment between what we are asking teachers to teach and what we are measuring by way of holding schools, teachers, and students accountable,” he said.

Laura Perna, an education professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said statewide ACT and SAT testing could be one way to address the current mismatch between high school and college expectations, but there can be unintended consequences to using the scores in various ways. “We need to think carefully about what is the right test and if we need more than one,” she said.

While Minnesota state officials believe new statewide ACT testing scheduled for 2015 will strengthen the state’s assessment system, not everyone in the state agrees.

Michelle Volk, a school board member in the Lakeville Area Public Schools, just south of Minneapolis, said districts should be able to set their own graduation standards and opt out of the ACT. “It was a surprise to many districts,” Ms. Volk said of the legislation requiring the ACT as a graduation requirement. Most states that contract with the ACT have required all students to take the exam.

Some students who have no interest in college may just turn in blank tests, Ms. Volk said, since there is no minimum cut score. She has crafted a resolution that will go before the Minnesota School Boards Association in December to add a proposal to loosen the ACT mandate to MSBA’s lobbying agenda.

For their part, ACT officials say they have not run into this opposition elsewhere and that students generally take the exam seriously.

“It is really seen as a great equalizer from an opportunity and access standpoint,” said the ACT’s Mr. Weeks.

For many states, the deciding point will come in the spring when the common-standards testing consortia officially roll out their college- and career-readiness assessments.

Missouri is among those states that have already opted for the college-admissions tests. The state decided in January to use the ACT for its 11th grade college- and career-readiness measure rather than the new Smarter Balanced assessment. Michael J. Muenks, the coordinator of curriculum and assessment in the state office of college and career readiness, said the reason for the choice was that the ACT was understood by the stakeholders, and parents felt it was a better return on investment: “It had buy-in.”

Special coverage on the alignment between K-12 schools and postsecondary education is supported in part by a grant from the Lumina Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the October 29, 2014 edition of Education Week as State Efforts Fuel ACT, SAT Growth


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