Educators Face the Next Generation of Tests

In which I continue my quest to find out how expert educators are viewing the new assessments their students are taking. In previous columns, I shared reactions to Smarter Balanced and PARCC. Today I report on two Alabama schools about to take ACT Aspire.

Last year was the second year Alabama students in grades 3 through 8 took the ACT Aspire, which is a test that purports to map whether students are on track to be prepared for the ACT exam. ACT, of course, is one of the exams colleges use for admissions decisions.

Aspire is thus quite different from the other "new generation tests" -- Smarter Balanced and PARCC. Both those tests were explicitly developed to test whether students are mastering the grade-level standards spelled out in Common Core State Standards. And a recent study by the Fordham Institute found that they do a pretty good job of it.

But because ACT Aspire is not linked to a set of standards in the same way, it is much more difficult for teachers to be confident that they are preparing their students. "It is now more difficult to determine if we are on the right path," is the way Melissa Mitchell, principal of George Hall Elementary School in Mobile, Alabama, put it.

George Hall serves mostly African American students from a low-income part of Mobile and was recently recognized as a National Title 1 Distinguished School. Its results on the ACT Aspire last year were comparable to or better than the rest of the state.

But when I visited a couple of weeks ago, I found no sense of complacency.

The school's boundaries have recently been changed, and many of George Hall's students were sent to other schools. The school now has many students completely new to the school. This means that the students have a lot to catch up on -- and George Hall's teachers know it. Their new students haven't been exposed to previous years of the school's many thoughtfully developed units on motion and energy, the planetary system, the human circulatory system, and other science topics -- not to mention the units on American colonial history, the Civil War, and Westward Expansion.

Without the vocabulary and background knowledge developed in those kinds of lessons, they may very well be caught flatfooted when they are confronted on the ACT Aspire test by a reading passage that could be on any topic in the world.

This puts children who arrive at school with little academic background knowledge at a distinct disadvantage, and that describes students at George Hall.

The same is true at nearby Dr. Robert W. Gilliard Elementary School, where Debbie Bolden is principal. Bolden had been assistant principal of George Hall during what Mitchell refers to as "The Transformation," when it went from being one of the lowest performing schools in Alabama to one of the highest. Bolden went to Gilliard to try to lead the same kind of improvement. It's been seven years, and the school is, she says, on the right path. "Teachers are teaching, students are learning. Students receive quality instruction."

However, she too is worried about the students who haven't been in Gillard for very long. Like many high-poverty schools it has a very transient student population -- of last year's 110 fifth-graders, only 15 had been at the school since kindergarten.

The transience makes it difficult to build the kind of loyalty and dedication that would help the kids take the ACT Aspire seriously. "At the very beginning of the test, we told students [as required by the testing instructions] that 'This test will have no bearing on your grades,'" Bolden said, adding that students often feel as if the test has no effect on their future.

And yet Alabama is considering whether schools can be labelled failing on the basis of one administration of ACT Aspire. Even when, as happened last year, a computer tool that educators had been told would be available to students -- a cut and paste function -- wasn't there, and all of a sudden the test, which is billed as an assessment of reading, writing, and math, became a test of whether students could type. Many students couldn't, and Bolden believes the school's test results reflect that.

This year, students at Gilliard are learning to type.

But the core of instruction at both Gilliard and George Hall is pegged to Alabama's state standards, which are very similar to Common Core State Standards.

Both schools have been focused on ensuring their students are mastering state standards. Even though ACT Aspire is not directly linked to the standards, Bolden is confident that "if we teach the standards, the students will do well on the test."

But there was a little tone of fingers crossed in her voice when she said that.