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Why I support replacing the EOIs with the ACT (Part I)

On Twitter and in this blog, I have often expressed support for the idea of eliminating the seven End-of-Instruction tests (EOIs) that our state requires and replacing them with the ACT. I have probably never explicitly spelled out my reasoning, though. While there is probably more momentum throughout Oklahoma for this idea now than there ever has been, I still know many educators, parents, and policy-makers who are not convinced. Fortunately, our new state superintendent is on board with the idea:Why I support replacing the EOIs with the ACT (Part I)

Over the next few blog posts, I will spell out my logic with ten eleven reasons (and counting) to make this change and five possible obstacles the state might face. First, let me give you a little background on my experience with the EOIs.

Background

Prior to 2000, I really didn’t pay much attention to education policy. I was in my twenties (which is no excuse) and comfortable in my classroom at Mustang High School. Then, in 2001, the state rolled out two end-of-instruction tests: English II (which is what I taught all day) and US History. I wasn’t concerned with how my students would do on the test, but I didn’t appreciate the disruption. Two years later, as a result of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the state introduced the Algebra I and Biology I EOIs. The English II test became part of the NCLB accountability package. The US History test was optional under federal law, as it remains. Let’s put a pin in that thought for now.

In 2006, the state passed the Achieving Classroom Excellence Law (ACE) requiring that high school students, beginning with the freshman class of 2008-09, pass four of seven EOIs. Two of these would have to be English II and Algebra I. In 2008, the final three EOIs were put in place – Geometry, Algebra II, and English III. As a teacher, I never had to care how my students did on the tests. We had them for information only (those were the days). I just taught and hoped I taught well. I didn’t use any test results to confirm or disconfirm that.

As an administrator, though, I can’t remember a time I haven’t been at least partially focused on the scores. I’ve watched them move with the political whims and just hoped that whoever I happened to be working for came out well in comparison to the state and surrounding communities. Meanwhile, I hear the complaints of teachers and principals everywhere telling me that testing narrows the focus of the curriculum.

With that said, let’s start the list…

Reasons to Replace the EOIs with the ACT

  1. Students don’t care about the EOIs – In December, I participated in a High-Stakes Testing (HST) Summit along with members of several groups from around the state. The 50 or 60 people there came from the classroom, the school office, the central office, parent groups, church coalitions, community groups, tribal leadership, various advocacy groups, and elected office. Most importantly, we also had two high school seniors with us. We divided into three smaller groups, and I met with the one tasked with discussing state and federal testing requirements.As often happens in groups, we pulled out chart paper and began brainstorming. Never one to throw out good ideas – mine or those of other people – I took pictures of each page. I won’t fill this space with all the pictures, but I will share the one titled, “Concerns With Testing.”

    Concerns with Testing
    For those of you reading in email and perhaps not seeing the picture, we had several issues listed, including the fact that students are focused on tests that colleges use. For most Oklahoma children, this means the ACT. The two seniors both mentioned that they had passed enough EOIs early in high school to graduate, making their remaining tests irrelevant.

    For many students, Advanced Placement courses are also a greater focus. If you’re a junior taking AP US History, which is more important to you? The AP test, or the EOI? One of them could earn you college credit. Passing the EOI is equivalent to getting an extra gold star on your high school transcript. Sure, it makes your teacher look good – and I’m all for that – but it does nothing for the student.

    While I would love to see Congress pass a replacement to NCLB that didn’t require annual testing in reading and math and then testing once in high school, it’s not realistic to think that this option has a chance. Let yourself dream for a moment, though. If this somehow happened, more than 70 percent of Oklahoma students would still take the ACT. Whether you like the test or not, it matters to our high school students.

  1. Colleges don’t care about the EOIs either – In the four years that Oklahoma spent wading in the shallow end of the Common Core swimming pool, the funniest thing I heard was that colleges were going to start using PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessments (the Common Core testing groups) as part of the college admission process. Maybe this isn’t as laughable as the thought of colleges using the EOIs, since there would have been some level of national comparison possible from the tests. Still, it wasn’t going to happen. The SAT (a College Board product) and ACT (owned by ACT, Inc.) are exams with decades of history.Yes, both tests are going through a redesign. They do this every so often. When I took the ACT in the late 80s, it had a Social Studies section. When my wife took it in the early 90s, it didn’t. More recently, both the SAT and ACT have added writing components. As the tests changed, the respective companies communicated these changes to the colleges and high schools that utilize them.
  1. This measure would save Oklahoma families money – Each ACT a student takes costs $38.00. If the student adds the writing section, the cost jumps to $54.50. While this isn’t a back-breaker for most families, the reality is that many students take the exam multiple times. They want to increase their score, or they’re applying to a college that uses superscoring, which takes the highest subsection from each test to generate a higher composite score. If the state paid for one test for each high school student – and did it during the sophomore year – this would help parents out a little bit and give students an early idea of how much work they need in order to prepare for college.
  1. This measure would save the state money – For fiscal conservatives such as the naysayers on the Editorial Board of the Oklahoman, this reason should really punch their ticket to the show. Our current battery of EOIs costs the state just a hair short of $7 million. That’s just the testing contract. This figure doesn’t count the cost of staff to manage the program, interpret the results, lead all the committee work that goes into the development of test items and standard-setting, or the legal staff necessary to pull us out of contracts (or negotiate settlements) when the testing program breaks. Every student taking one ACT, by the SDE’s math, would cost about $1.5 million.I haven’t heard a proposal to do this, but I’d like to see the state go a step further. If students took the ACT during the sophomore year, they would quickly know what areas need the most improvement. This could drive course selection (a bonus for the people who like rigor) and remediation opportunities – in real time, rather than months after testing concludes. Then, the state could pay for a student to take a second ACT during the junior year – any time during the junior year. Now we’ve subsumed the ACE remediation budget into testing. That’s another $8 million, based on the budget for the current school year.

    In a year with a $600 million shortfall, leaders need to find ways to save money without hurting schools. This would be the epitome of such an effort.

  2. The ACT would fulfill NCLB Requirements – In spite of what the Oklahoman published this morning, all we have to do to comply with No Child Left Behind and its waiver is test reading, math, and science once during high school. The ACT would take care of that. We’d have to write this plan into a revision of our NCLB waiver, but that process is about to start anyway.

Still to Come in Part II

  • The benefits of using a test that K-12, Higher Ed, and Career Tech all value
  • Overtesting – yes, it’s a real thing!
  • The value of timely feedback
  • Schools making better use of all those parent and community volunteers (in case anyone still believes private schools have the market cornered on parental involvement)

Testing: To Profit or Not?

January 6, 2013 11 comments

I had an interesting discussion on Twitter Friday morning with two current Oklahoma district superintendents about testing. It began with Clinton Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Hime asking if high-stakes testing would be as popular if it were done by non-profits.

I responded that technically, the College Board (SAT, PSAT, AP exams) and ACT, Inc. (ACT, PLAN, EXPLORE) are non-profits. A quick bit of research on the state Open Books website allowed me to find the following state expenses for 2012 for testing contracts:

Company

Status

Expenses

NCS Pearson For Profit $14,200,000
CTB McGraw Hill For Profit $1,600,000
ACT, Inc. Non-Profit $1,500,000
College Board Non-Profit $900,000

Keep in mind that this includes all state contracts for testing – common education, higher education, and Career Tech. We should also note that the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education pay for all eighth grade students in the state to take the EXPLORE exam and all tenth grade students in the state to take the PLAN.

Pearson and CTB will be changing positions in 2013, with CTB being awarded the newest testing contracts, which include a suite of benchmark tests. The total amount will increase if Superintendent Barresi gets the legislature to approve a bump from $11 million to $16 million for the next fiscal year. Of the more than $18 million represented above, K-12 testing contracts are the vast majority of expenses.

However, the ACT and College Board share of testing revenue from our state increases when you consider the fact that students pay for those tests themselves. In 2012, more than 29,000 Oklahoma seniors took the ACT. At $35 a test, this accounts for another $1,015,000. This also doesn’t account for underclassmen taking the test any money spent on test preparation. Meanwhile, more than 23,000 Advanced Placement exams were administered at the end of the 2011-12 school year. Each of those exams cost $89, although some of the expense for that was borne by the state. According to this cost-benefit analysis report to the legislature, the SDE spent almost $600,000 on test fee assistance. This leaves about $1.5 million in test fees for parents.

A quick look at both the College Board and ACT websites shows that with more testing on the horizon, there is also more opportunity for Oklahomans to spend money with them – either directly or indirectly. College Board has Accuplacer, and a $1.99 smart phone app that you can also purchase. ACT has WorkKeys, a “job skills assessment system that helps employers select, hire, train, develop, and retain a high-performance workforce.”

College Board’s new president was a key architect of the Common Core State Standards. Something tells me they’re going to be a larger player in K-12 testing in the future. ACT is developing a new assessment system that will “span elementary grades through high school.” This system will launch in 2014.

By the way, I find it amusing that this system will be introduced in a “launch.” Since we currently don’t have a space program, we need something to help us imagine. As a nation. For the children.

Ultimately, we’ll be forcing our kindergarten students to endure high-stakes tests. Don’t laugh. There’s real momentum for this happening.

I remember watching a 60 minutes exposé in the 1990s critical of teachers “teaching to the test.” It’s a funny complaint from society. Policy makers create more laws calling for high-stakes tests. We evaluate schools and teachers by those tests. We spend crazy money on those tests, both as taxpayers and as parents. We use the results of those tests to plot the future of our children. We even use test results to determine more tests that students need. Teachers have not created this obsessive assessment culture. They’ve just been hired to work within it.

At this point, I don’t distinguish between the crass profiteers leeching off of public education or the so-called non-profits. They all make off with gobs of money. They all have seats at the policy-making table (a place where teachers aren’t allowed to speak). They all have been complicit in the destruction of what school used to be: a place for children to explore and pursue their passions.

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