Switch to digital for ACT admissions exam is bumpy

Company sure glitches are solvable

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The ACT college admissions exam is going digital in 2015, and its creators fully expect some bumps along the way.

Just as the company earlier this week announced its new 21st-century testing method, schools in Kentucky were reverting to the classic pencil-and-paper approach after ACT’s online assessment system crashed. The ordeal, while a headache for educators in Kentucky, provided a learning experience for exam developers, ACT’s education division President Jon L. Erickson said Thursday.

“Technology is still in evolution. There is known risk around technology. This is why we’re being a little more methodical about our move to digital on the ACT. The move is in two years,” he said.

Best known for its college admissions test — now more popular than the SAT and taken by nearly 1.7 million students last year — the Iowa City, Iowa-based ACT Inc. is a national leader in assessments for K-12 schools, colleges, professional associations and other entities.

Those exams traditionally have been done with No. 2 pencils and fill-in-the-bubble answer sheets, a system that is quickly falling by the wayside. The new system lets each test center decide whether it wants to give the test via computer, though students can opt for a pencil-and-paper test.

But with each expansion of computerized testing comes new glitches to fix.

“There were lessons learned [in Kentucky]. I’m very optimistic that the lessons learned there and the evolution of technology over the course of the next 24 months is going to be 10 leapfrogs ahead. But we’re very cautious,” Mr. Erickson said.

If current trends hold, however, the students who take those exams will by no means be ready for postsecondary-level work. ACT data paints a grim picture of how ill-prepared many American students are for the next step in their education.

“Our data suggests that about 40 percent of students who take the ACT — about 52 percent of high school graduates in the country last year — got to a college-readiness level in English, math, reading and science,” he said.

Other ACT data show that while 75 percent of high school teachers think their students are ready, only 25 percent of college professors share that belief, Mr. Erickson said.

To help change that, the company was involved in the creation of the so-called “Common Core” K-12 standards, which lays out in great detail what facts should be known and what skills should be mastered as students finish each grade level. It has been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia.

The assessment tests in Kentucky are tied those standards; the Bluegrass State was the first in the nation to test its students based on Common Core.

But there’s a growing backlash among many in the education community who argue that, while Common Core is a good idea, teachers and school administrators need more time to familiarize themselves with the standards before high-stakes testing is linked to them.

“Momentum is building to step on the accelerator of quality implementation, and put the brakes on the stakes,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said Thursday.

Those sentiments, along with a growing movement against Common Core across the country, have led some analysts to suggest that many states could adopt the system in name only but not tie student assessments to it.

That, Mr. Erickson said, would be a mistake.

“Just throwing a bunch of standards against the wall doesn’t change practice or student performance all by itself,” he said. “It’s naive to think that changing a standard on a piece of paper is going to change things.”

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