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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.

“Third grade is the ideal time to start children thinking about their future,” because although the plans and interests may change for some students, “for even more it will not,” said Opal Mobbs, computer lab manager at Fannin Elementary School in Corpus Christi, Texas.

Mobbs pointed to her personal experience as an example: Her son has known since the third grade that he wanted to be a video game designer, and although he has mentioned scientist and artist as other options, she emphasized that those fields go along with video game design.

Still, Mobbs cautioned, “I would not want my child to feel like he is being boxed in to a particular field; I want him to explore all options that appeal to him.”

Mobbs suggested that the best timeline for college and career assessment would be to begin testing in “third grade and then every two years after until graduation from high school.”

In contrast, higher-education expert John Bennett strongly disapproved of beginning testing in early elementary school.

“I am at a loss to understand this testing. First, I think careers should align with passion, not with what some test suggests. Second, I believe behavior skills are best observed (and addressed) by parents/family and teachers,” Bennett, an emeritus professor and associate dean of engineering at the University of Connecticut, wrote in an eMail.

He said elementary students instead should focus on basic skills such as reading, writing, problem solving, and teamwork.

“Such college prep, if you want to call it that (I’d suggest “life prep”), should be obvious without any testing,” he wrote.

Colby disagreed with critics’ concerns that the new system will push young students into specific career paths prematurely.

“The whole idea is not to label students,” he said, “but to identify what they want to do … [and to] show them the types of careers that match their interests.”

The tragedy of current education is that students sometimes reach the end of senior year in high school and say, “Gee, I’d like to be a nurse,” but “if they haven’t been preparing for that, getting the kind of grades they need, it’s too late,” Colby said.

He said this new system could help students interested in health careers, for instance, realize they need to take more advanced coursework in science and math.

“It’s all about providing the information; they make the decisions. It’s all about how they use the information to get to the goals they’d like to reach,” Colby said.

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