Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Are you TNReady for the ACT?

High school students (and some 8th grade students) have the option to take the ACT test several times a year. Currently, high school juniors get to take the test once for free, and there is a bill pending in the legislature that will allow them to retake the test a second time for free. For students, doing well on the ACT means financial aid to a university somewhere. For high schools and school districts, the ACT is one of many accountability measures that supposedly determines how well-prepared students are for post-secondary education. 

I adamantly challenge the premise that ANY test can adequately measure a student’s readiness for life after high school. All state-mandated tests are one-time snapshots of a student’s ability and none of them require the student to demonstrate knowledge in a real-world context. Many recent studies have concluded that there is no correlation between a student’s ACT score and future post-secondary success. Because of that, there is a growing trend among universities around the country to weigh other criteria heavier than a student’s ACT score. This trend has not, and may not, hit Tennessee with any great force.
Tennessee’s new TNReady exam is a much improved method to determine what students have actually learned because it requires them to go beyond simply figuring out the correct answer. They have to apply concepts and know how they arrived at that answer. With that said, there are several problems with TNReady: it’s too long, it allows Tennessee to compare itself with only two other states who use Measurement Inc.--Florida and Utah, it may not be developmentally appropriate for elementary students (especially in math), and it’s not reliable as evidenced by the online computer system crashing on the first day of testing. 

To solve this problem, Senator Janice Bowling has introduced SB 1984 in the legislature, which, if passed, allows local school districts the option to use the ACT Aspire suite of assessments instead of TNReady. Tullahoma City Schools, Maury County Schools, Maryville City Schools, Coffee County Schools and Oak Ridge Schools have already expressed support for the bill. There are many advantages of switching to ACT over TNReady. 

It will probably lead to a fewer number of tests and less time spent testing students. This equates to more class time for teachers and students, which means more opportunities for authentic learning. The ACT has existed for almost 60 years and is reliable. Little to no additional professional development is required to transition to ACT because of the plethora of test questions available, which also make this an easier test to prepare my students for. That, in turn, will increase student proficiency on the ACT, which will lead to more students getting college scholarship money and will make myself, my school, and my district all look like we are adequately “preparing” our students for college. Finally, many other states are using the ACT Aspire suite of assessments for their statewide assessment. Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Wisconsin, and Wyoming all use multiple ACT assessments in their states. Wouldn’t it be better for Tennessee to compare itself to 11 other states instead of 2.

I support Senator Bowling’s bill because I believe it is a step in the right direction. However, it’s important to understand some of the negative ramifications of replacing TNReady with ACT as it is outlined in this bill.

To begin with, it’s more expensive and individual school districts would have to pay for it. In the fiscal note for SB 1984 it states a few interesting things: the state will not purchase the suite of ACT tests, it will cost local school districts approximately $20 per student if they want to switch from TNReady to ACT, and, as a result, “it is estimated that few, if any, would elect to do so.” It appears that only school districts with a wealthy tax base could afford such a move.

Secondly, in this age of accountability, if some districts give the ACT while the rest of the state continues on with TNReady exams, it then becomes nearly impossible to accurately compare districts and teachers with each other, which is the purpose of TVAAS. In case you aren’t aware, Tennessee’s TVAAS model predicts students’ future test scores based their scores on previous test scores. How well teachers meet or exceed these predictions affect the entire education landscape--from the school report cards that are published annually to evaluating an individual teacher’s effectiveness, which is sometimes used to determine teacher salary and possibly whether or not the teacher is retained.

Here is my advice to the legislature as they are considering this bill. Admit that you made a mistake in contracting with Measurement Inc. and wash your hands of them. Then, purchase the ACT Aspire suite of assessments for Tennessee’s students instead of relying on individual districts to pay for it. It’s what you should have done in the first place after deciding to replace the PARCC Assessment. Cheaper is not always better.

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