ACT to launch college and career testing for elementary school students

ACT officials say testing students early will give them more time to adjust coursework and prepare for potential career paths.

Standardized testing is under increasing scrutiny, as proponents tout its potential for bringing accountability to education while opponents deride it as misguided and exhausting. How much testing is too much? How early is too early?

Now, assessment provider ACT Inc. has announced plans to develop a “next generation” assessment system that would test students for college and career readiness as early as kindergarten and continue through high school.

The first module in the new system, designed for third graders, will pilot next year and launch officially in 2014.

ACT began in 1954 with its signature college readiness test, the ACT, now used by college admissions officers nationwide to assess applicants.

Based on its experience and research findings, the company “realized that assessing students’ skills in 11th and 12th grades is too late for making changes in students’ course patterns,” said ACT spokesman Ed Colby.

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The nonprofit assessment provider subsequently expanded its offerings to include the PLAN test for 10th graders and the EXPLORE test for eighth and ninth graders, to give students what Colby called “an earlier sense of their strengths and weaknesses.”

The new system will assess students’ skills not only at the end of a course or school year, but also on a day-to-day basis. Because the tests will be administered digitally through a partnership with Pearson, teachers will be able to tweak their lesson planning based on the system’s immediate feedback.

Although still in development, the system will test at least the subjects of English grammar, math, reading comprehension, and science. The test content will align with the Common Core State Standards, which in turn reflect ACT’s own College Readiness Standards.

To account for variation in curricula across the country, ACT test developers use results from a national survey that the company conducts every three years. Middle and high school teachers provide feedback about what skills they have been teaching their students, and college instructors share what students need to know to succeed in first-year college classes.

The tests use the Common Core standards as a base, but “go beyond” those standards by “also looking at other types of skills not directly related to academic performance but [having] an impact, such as social skills and goals,” said Colby.

Eventually, the company’s assessment system “will go all the way down to kindergarten,” he said, because by starting testing “as early as possible, students can get on the college readiness track early in their school careers and stay on track.

It “felt comfortable starting in third grade” because many standardized tests begin at that time, he said.

Moving the starting testing age from middle school to early elementary school elicited mixed reactions from education experts.

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