The SAT and the ACT have always been high stakes tests for students hoping to get into their college of choice, but in the last year the stakes have gotten even higher — for state departments of educations. Both of these major college entrance exams have been approved by the federal government to satisfy federal accountability requirements in high-school testing.
Last summer, President Barack Obama signed the Every Child Succeeds Act, a replacement for 2002’s No Child Left Behind Act. While the new law maintains the testing requirements set out by No Child Left Behind, it also allows states and districts more latitude in choosing which tests their high schoolers will take.
According to EdSurge, states are jettisoning assessments they’ve been unhappy with, such as those produced by the PARCC and Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium’s (SBAC) testing consortiums, in favor of “nationally-recognized high school assessments.”
That means the ACT and SAT will be getting much more use — not just by students seeking admission to college, but for states assessing students’ Common Core competencies.
Who is using the ACT and SAT?
State-mandated college entrance exams for high schoolers is not, in itself, new. Many states have required students to take one or the other for a long time. This was done for various reasons: to evaluate college readiness, for example, or to encourage at-risk students to consider applying. Colorado, for example, began using the ACT to test high schoolers in 2001.
Some states have used the SAT or ACT for federal accountability requirements, although getting approval was not easy: Maine began using the SAT in 2005, but had to add math and science supplements to the exam in later years in order to meet No Child Left Behind’s Assessment Standards.
What the new law does is make it easier for states (or individual districts, with state permission) to opt out of consortium tests and to use the ACT or SAT instead.
And opting out they are. According to Education Week, 21 states required high school students to take the ACT or the SAT last year. Twelve of those states are using the tests for federal accountability, either in place of, or in conjunction with, other Common Core tests. The split is almost even — seven are using the ACT and five are using the SAT.
The SAT may regain some popularity as a state-mandated test. The College Board this year rolled out a new version of the test, which has been designed to align more closely with Common Core competencies. Previously, the SAT was designed to measure aptitudes. Now it may accurately gauge a student’s progress on educational goals.
Test prep is more important than ever
Preparing for high stakes tests like the ACT and SAT has always been a priority for college-bound students and their families. Now it will be important for states and district school systems. Districts considering using the ACT or the SAT to test students will want to give serious consideration to test preparation that will be offered to students. For example, states will want to consider whether working with a test prep company is a good way to supplement a state’s existing instruction.
The reason for this? Unlike state-created or consortium exams, the ACT and SAT may not be closely aligned to the state’s curriculums, so there may be gaps in students’ knowledge going into the test. A test prep company with a curriculum designed specifically for the test will be able to address those areas.
A test prep company that uses adaptive learning, like ACT prep company MasteryPrep, can identify those gaps using courseware that allows students to test out of areas in which they are already proficient.
Moving forward with the ACT and SAT
Using college readiness tests may be a welcome change for state departments of education — for many reasons.
All students who graduate will have taken the test, and thus be able to apply to college.
States that have suffered education cuts may find the tests a welcome relief — before PARCC and Smarter Better were formed in 2010, many states had designed, administered and scored their own statewide tests.Using national tests eliminates some of that financial burden.
Finally, using such common tests gives school systems access to an ecosystem of test prep providers that offer opportunities to improve learning outcomes and increase success.
A.J. O’Connell is a freelance journalist specializing in education reporting and a former college journalism teacher.