Wednesday, January 28, 2015

What’s in Your Testing Program?

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

It’s been a hectic month for school counselors in Michigan who also wear the title of building testing coordinator. Earlier this month, they were told the state of Michigan would no longer offer the ACT for free as part of its statewide high school testing programs.  Instead, the SAT would be offered for free instead.

Being the sturdy folks we are, counselor sighed, said here we go again, and got ready to reshape their test prep programs and prepare teachers for a different kind of testing—all based on descriptions of a test that isn’t even written yet.

No sooner were those plans developed when Michigan said—hang on.  ACT had filed an appeal of the state’s decision to switch tests.  It turns out ACT had put in a testing bid that included grading the optional writing test that’s long been a part of ACT, but SAT had not.  ACT claimed that was the reason the SAT bid was so much less; without the writing sample, ACT claimed, theirs was the better offer.

The timing on this wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad.  Counselors had two weeks to finish sending out high school transcripts for college applications, and a little extra time to get a jump on scheduling—a duty that, like test coordination, is something we have never had any training in.

The word finally came yesterday, and Michigan is back on the Change Express.  Claiming the request for bids clearly told ACT to provide just the basics of the test, the state of Michigan ruled the SAT bid was fair.  As long as the final approval is given next week, the SAT will be part of statewide testing in March 2016.

What can counselors learn from this experience, whether you’re in Michigan or elsewhere?  Plenty:

Never take your test plans for granted.  School improvement in Michigan has been measured in part by ACT scores since 2007, and schools have built entire academic programs around ACT objectives.  The switch to the SAT means there will be no reasonable way to measure student growth for at least three years—and that’s assuming Michigan doesn’t switch back to the ACT when this new three-year contract expires.  School districts went all in on the ACT; now they they’ve been burned, it’s unlikely they’ll be as invested with the SAT.

Never let policy makers take your test plans for granted. Reports indicate the Michigan switch was more about money than anything else, but there are indications decision makers could have been more aware about the curricular implications of making a test change.  Counselors and their state organizations would do well to join efforts with state principal and superintendent groups to share aggregate test results with state leaders on a deep and frequent basis.  By pointing out the impact tests have on third grade reading, counselors can help policy makers think twice about making test changes too often—and give them good reason to understand why those changes may or may not be necessary.

Don’t reinvent the wheel with test prep.  Every school counselor is going to make their test preparation programs more SAT centered—and if everyone has to do something, that means there’s a potential to make it easier.  Now is the time to band together and create a common test prep curriculum; ask your principal to host your nearby school counselors in a meeting or two where you can review existing SAT materials together (the Khan Academy materials come to mind as a place to start).  Tell your principal this will avoid a lot of SAT headaches, and watch how quickly they say yes. 

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