Consequences of Using College Readiness Exams for High School Accountability

Education Week American Education News Site of RecordIn the past few weeks, Colorado dropped PARCC for the SAT at the high school level, and Delaware and Montana have dropped Smarter Balanced for the SAT (Delaware) and ACT (Montana). New flexibility under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) makes the use of college readiness exams for high school accountability easier than ever. States claim that the switch provides cost-savings and time-savings. But what consequences may occur as a result of this switch?

Catherine Gewertz, writing for Education Week, explored some of these consequences in a recent article:

If many states make that change, it would represent an important national shift in the meaning of high school testing, assessment experts say.

That’s because most states’ current tests are based on their academic standards and are built to measure mastery of those standards. Moving to a college-entrance exam such as the SAT or ACT, which are designed to predict the likelihood of students’ success in college, would mean that states had chosen instead to measure college readiness.

“It’s a really big shift,” said Wayne Camara, who helped design the SAT and oversaw research at the College Board for two decades before taking a similar post at ACT in 2014. “States need to think about what they want their accountability system to measure and choose the test best suited for that. Ultimately, it’s a judgment. It depends on what you value most.”

Seven states have won permission from the U.S. Department of Education to use SAT or ACT for federal accountability. But a spokeswoman for the department said the states still must present evidence, through the peer-review process, that the exams are valid for that purpose. Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, and New Hampshire won approval to use the SAT for federal accountability, and Arkansas, Wisconsin, and Wyoming got the nod to use the ACT that way.

How well a national exam can reflect state standards is a central—and unanswered—question in the use of college-entrance exams for accountability purposes.

Sound assessment practice requires that a test be validated for its specific intended use. But there are no independent research studies analyzing how well the newest versions of the SAT or ACT reflect the depth and breadth of the Common Core State Standards, which are used by more than 40 states. States that use other standards would have to obtain their own “alignment” studies.

Without that kind of evidence, testing experts said, states are on shaky ground if they use a college-entrance exam to measure mastery of their content standards.

“How can a state tell teachers to teach the standards, and then use a test that hasn’t been proven to align [to them]?” said Scott F. Marion, the executive director of the Center for Assessment, which helps states design testing systems. “It’s a major problem. It’s like a bait-and-switch.”

If, on the other hand, states wish to make college readiness a key metric in their accountability systems, college-entrance exams could be a better fit, experts said.

One danger, however, lies in what use states make of college-entrance-exam data. Using it to measure students’ likelihood of success in college is one thing, but using it to make judgments about the effectiveness of a school, a principal, or a teacher would be another, assessment experts cautioned.

“Tests like the SAT or ACT can measure college readiness, but whether they can measure a teacher’s or a school’s contribution to college readiness is an open question,” said Lauress L. Wise, the immediate-past president of the National Council on Measurement in Education, which sets standards for best practice in assessment.

Because students come to school with such varied levels of preparation, snapshot performance on college-entrance exams wouldn’t be a valid way to compare schools’ effectiveness, Wise said. Instead, states might want to consider using growth in college readiness, rather than a snapshot, for their accountability systems, to show their schools’ power to boost their students’ college readiness over time, he said.

“We should ask what it would do to the high school experience,” said Gregory J. Cizek, a professor of educational measurement and evaluation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “To be successful [in accountability], schools will have to morph their curricula into college-prep curricula. Things are going to get left out that high schools value that SAT and ACT content standards don’t.”

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