This March, the SAT will be getting its most significant makeover in 10 years. Testmakers hope the new focus on data analysis, reading comprehension and algebra—and thankfully, less emphasis on obscure vocabulary—can better predict students’ readiness for college.
State officials also hope that the test can do double duty and assess students’ competencies on Common Core and state academic standards, as well.
Already, the U.S. Department of Education has approved three states—Connecticut, Maine, and New Hampshire—to use the SAT as a high school assessment for federal accountability purposes. Delaware is on track to become the fourth. And that's just for accountability—in the 2015-2016 school year, the SAT will be administered to every public high school in Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire and the District of Columbia, as well as in more than 100 districts across 17 more states.
Another popular college exam—the ACT—is also throwing its hat into the ring as well. ACT reports that at the moment, 15 states will be administering the ACT to all 11th graders as a required statewide exam, and four others will be funding the ACT for all students on an optional basis.
For the creators of these tests, the window of opportunity swung open after Smarter Balanced and PARCC began falling out of favor with schools and districts. Just five years ago, these two testing consortia promised a new generation of assessments. Each received approximately $180 million in Race to the Top and American Reinvestment and Recovery Act funds to develop and administer exams that could test students on college and career readiness as dictated by the Common Core State Standards. At their heydays, 23 states signed up for Smarter Balanced, and PARCC was adopted by 23 states and the District of Columbia.
But these tests failed to live up to expectations. Teachers and students were puzzled at the absence of seemingly important test items. SR Education Associates’s Steven Rasmussen found SBAC to be “a quagmire of poor technological design, poor interaction design, and poor mathematics that hopelessly clouds the insights the tests might give us into students’ thinking.”
And over time, the two exams began losing contracts. As of today, only six states will administer the PARCC test in 2016. SmarterBalanced currently claims 18 members on its “member states” map, but that figure should be lower given Montana and Delaware’s recent departures from the Consortium.
With all the time and money spent on preparing teachers and students for the tests, some of the results (both implementation problems and low student performance) were disappointing. Some pulled out early: Georgia Governor Nathan Deal and former state superintendent John Barge dropped PARCC after they realized that the test would have cost the state as much as $27 million a year to implement. Others didn't: Connecticut reports a $20 million loss on SBAC.
“I see [PARCC] as an incredible infringement on educational time with little to no benefit to students, their families, or educators,” Mikkel Storaasli, Assistant Superintendent at Chicago’s Leyden District, tells EdSurge.
What College Prep Tests Offer
Now, state education officials are falling back to a more familiar test: college prep exams. Nearly every student and teacher knows what the SAT and ACT are. “The SAT/ACT have the benefit of being there as veterans in the college-readiness testing field,” says Leng Fritsche, Assistant Superintendent of Student Assessment for the Houston Independent School District. “And both the SAT and ACT can provide historical trends on student performance because of [their] long history.”
Tony Wagner, Harvard Innovation Education fellow and former high school teacher, agrees—and adds that the SAT and/or the ACT work for at least the short-term because “districts and states don’t have to administer [them].”
There’s also the question of usefulness beyond K-12. One key differentiator of these tests over the PARCC and Smarter Balanced is that the scores students earn on the ACT and SAT can be used to apply to colleges and universities across the country. “This may give students greater incentive to do their best on the exam, since they can directly benefit from the results,” says ACT's media director Ed Colby.
And what about the actual implementation of tests? The timing and the technology implications, for example? While PARCC and Smarter Balanced happened several times throughout the year, students and schools choose whether to take college prep exams once or multiple times, says Massachusetts educator Kerry Gallagher. “Kids, teachers and parents don't tend to like tests that overburden precious time in already-packed school year schedules,” and this gives them more freedom, she says.
And after all of the adaptive hullabaloo around PARCC and Smarter Balanced, the SAT and ACT are more heavily paper-based at the moment—but still have flexibility. “The online ACT is not offered on our national test days at this time, as all of those tests are still delivered on paper, nor does it include technology enhanced items, nor is it computer adaptive,” says Colby. “However, an online version of the ACT test is offered as an option to states, districts and schools that administer the ACT to all students on a school day as part of their testing programs.” And on the SAT's side, the College Board is currently developing a digital version of the redesigned SAT, but will continue to offer the SAT on paper as well.
What About The Content?
The SAT has gone through a redesign for debut in March, and according to Jake Firman, Director of Education Technology at DSST Public Schools, this newer version of the SAT “has made a very focused effort alignment to Common Core.” For example, in addition to reverting back to the 1600-point scale, the SAT will have more algebra, fewer logic-based word problems, and more questions that specifically address students’ understanding of mathematical concepts—all reminiscent of Common Core’s focus on process and skill over rote memorization. Additionally,the Atlantic recently reported that students will tackle more challenging passages that “represent a range of topics from across the disciplines of social studies, science, and history.”
David Coleman, CEO of the College Board, tells EdSurge, "We are redesigning the SAT so that it’s focused on the few things that matter most for college readiness, reflective of what students are learning in high school, and better connected to distinct benefits for students, including free practice through Khan Academy and college application fee waivers.”
Beatriz Arnillas, Director of IT at the Houston Independent School District, is a bigger supporter of the ACT when it comes to content. Arnillas says that the ACT “has been gaining ground over SAT because ACT addresses 21st century skills.” The ACT College Readiness Benchmarks give students and their teachers input on how ready students are for success in first-year college courses, including English composition, algebra, and biology.
And ACT’s alignment to Common Core? This might be one win that the SAT has over ACT. The ACT’s current design was created prior to the release of the Common Core Standards. However, according to ACT's media director Ed Colby and a recent ACT white paper, ACT data and subject matter expertise was “lent to the Common Core development effort,” so “significant overlap exists between the Common Core… and the college and career readiness constructs” that ACT measures.
Not a Perfect Solution
As a college prep test, the SAT is designed for high schoolers. What does that mean for elementary and middle school grades? The ACT is upping the ante with its in-house designed ACT Aspire exams, a series of summative and formative assessments for grades 3-8 that it claims are Common Core-aligned and “measure student learning at each grade level with an emphasis on college and career readiness,” says Colby.
Beyond the SAT and ACT, states have other options, as well. Thanks to new provisions in ESSA that grant states more authority to choose tests that meet federal accountability standards, states can now look into other exams created by other organizations and private companies. Maine language arts teacher Melanie Stevens believes Renaissance’s STAR exam, for instance, can replace PARCC and SBAC. “If there is a need to collect data for a student learning objective, it seems STAR diagnostics would be a reliable source,” she says.
Other states are electing to design their own Common Core-aligned exams. In Massachusetts, educators report that the unofficially-titled “MCAS 2.0” test will combine PARCC elements with the state’s current MCAS exam. Georgia created its own tests—the Common Core-aligned Georgia Milestones—after dropping PARCC.
As with all things in education, there's no one-size-fits-all solution. But with the transition time and resources that ESSA provides, educators have an optimal moment to consider whether college prep tests can play the role of a national testing standard—or there should be a national testing standard at all. In fact, Tony Wagner brings it back to what the students, teachers, and districts want.
“I think the whole area of testing is ripe for a radical redesign,” he says.