Associate Director for Policy and Outreach
Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR)
University of Chicago
One of Mike's major concerns is with the alignment
of K12 curriculum and standards and college expectations. A increasingly popular way for states to address alignment is to require all students to take the ACT ot SAT while in high school, and to build scores from these tests into their accountability system. According to Achieve, 6 states now incorporate the ACT or SAT in their state assessment system. Yet, a new study by my colleagues Elaine Allensworth and Macarena Correa (w/ Steve Ponicsiak) at the Consortium of Chicago School Research (CCSR) calls into question the effectiveness of such strategies. The report From High School to the Future: ACT Preparation—Too Much, Too Late
shows that eleventh-grade students and teachers in Chicago are spending extraordinary amounts of class time preparing for ACT, but the intense focus on test strategies and item practice is hurting, not helping, performance on this high-skills accountability exam. According to the study, Chicago teachers commonly spend about one month of instructional time on ACT practice during eleventh grade core classes. Yet ACT scores were actually slightly lower in schools where eleventh-grade teachers reported spending at least 40 percent of their time on test prep, compared to those schools where teachers devoted less than 20 percent of their class time to test preparation, even after controlling for multiple factors—from student income and incoming test scores to teacher qualifications and school composition. The focus on test prep also means students are not making a connection between the work they do in their classes and their ACT scores.
While intending to promote rigor, such efforts may have the unintended effect of negatively impacting students preparation for college. Part of the problem: the poor alignment in Illinois (and elsewhere) of performance standards from K-8 to high school and from high school to college. Many students appear to be prepared for high school when they enter ninth grade—64 percent of students who took the ACT in 2005 had met the ISAT eighth-grade standards in reading three years earlier. Yet of these students who met state standards, only 30 percent met the ACT reading benchmark three years later. Only those students who exceeded standards in eighth grade were highly likely to meet the ACT reading benchmark, but in Chicago that represents only 855 students.
These findings should be sobering to policy makers and educators from states who are incorporating the ACT and SAT into their high school testing programs, or those thinking of doing so. The bottom line: incorporating the ACT into high school accountability cannot be an effective strategy for high school reform by itself, without accompanying strategies to build the capacity of schools and districts to improve instructional practice.