Vail Daily column: What were they thinking?
Just as everyone was settling into the haze of holiday bliss, the Colorado Department of Education dropped an unwelcomed early Christmas gift for Colorado schools.
On Dec. 23, the Department of Education announced an abrupt switch on the college entrance exams high school juniors would be required to take, moving from the ACT (which has been administered in Colorado for the past 15 years) to the SAT.
The change came about as a result of legislation passed during the 2015 legislative session designed to streamline and reduce student testing. The legislation (arguably) accomplished this, with almost all of the reduction happening at the high school level. One provision in that legislation required that tests for both 10th and 11th graders be competitively bid.
While I certainly wasn’t privy to the backroom conversations that led to the passage of this legislation, I’d be willing to bet that the competitive bid requirement wasn’t accidental. Testing companies employ professional lobbyists who work to create market opportunities in states. The cracking open of state contracts for competitive bidding is part of that work.
In any case, the new law required competitive bids and both ACT Inc. and The College Board (who runs the SAT) submitted proposals. According to CDE, a “diverse” and representative group sat on the selection committee and ultimately chose the SAT.
Now, what began as muted rumblings over the holidays is cresting into a wave of discontent as families and school officials try to make sense of what happened and what it will mean for schools.
There are primarily two reasons folks are upset. First, the ACT was just about the only stable and longitudinal data point schools in Colorado had left. The state has mucked around with the testing system so much over the past few years that ACT was an anchor of sorts in terms of performance metrics, especially for our high schools.
Second, the initial announcement from the Department of Education indicated that “transition options” were being explored for this year’s 11th graders. What the heck did that mean?
Keep in mind, these 11th grade students have been planning on taking the ACT for years and schools and families have invested heavily in ACT preparation supports (probably millions statewide) to get them ready to take it. The ACT, as a college entrance exam, is a test that students take very seriously and it felt like the rug was being pulled out from under everyone when the possibility emerged of switching tests some three months before the assessment window.
Now, the state seems to be walking back from the initial announcement (vague and poorly timed as it was) and, by all accounts is looking for some way for current 11th grade students to take the ACT this year and then make the switch to the SAT in 2017. This is progress, but does not atone for the clumsy and somewhat thoughtless way this was handled — creating anxiety and an uproar that could have so easily been avoided by talking with educators and students directly.
From my professional perspective, this isn’t about the tests themselves. As far as college entrance exams go, the SAT and ACT are fine, quality exams that are accepted interchangeably by most colleges and universities. Both are considered strong predictors of college success. At issue is the historical context and extraordinarily bad timing of this bungled move.
For our students here in Eagle County, we are exploring every option available so that our 11th graders can take the exam they anticipated and have prepared for — the ACT. We recently announced a free Princeton Review ACT prep class (in the works before we had knowledge of the SAT selection process). The class will be taught by our own Princeton Review-trained teachers and is available at our high schools this semester. We will go forward as planned to help our students prepare. We’ve reached out to ACT to see if we can pay for the tests with our own local dollars, should the state not come through with a reasonable transition plan of its own.
At this point, signs point to some solution in the works at the state level that may sort all this out. Monday, districts received another communication from Interim Commissioner of Education Elliott Asp (a very capable person and professional) that they were working on a solution — though details are scarce. We will keep our families and juniors informed, as we know more.
This whole fiasco should serve as yet another lesson to our state leaders when it comes to education policy — slow down and carefully take into account the perspectives of the people impacted by your policy choices. For now, we’ll stay tuned as “ACT-gate” continues to unfold … and continue to work on behalf of our students.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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