Educators weigh in on ACT Aspire

Published 6:03 pm Tuesday, May 16, 2017

State education officials have indicated that the ACT Aspire may be on the chopping block.  While its unknown what effect that would have on the Butler County School System, at least one thing seems clear—the standardized test has complicated as much as it has simplified during its four-year lifespan.

ACT Aspire is given to students in grades three through eight, and then again in tenth grade, as a means of helping them prepare for the proper ACT college entrance exam.

ACT Aspire’s predecessor, the Alabama Reading and Mathematics Test (ARMT), proved equally unpopular in the eyes of many, including Butler County Schools superintendent Amy Bryan.

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“It wasn’t aligned with the new standards that the state had adopted,” Bryan said. “So ACT Aspire is the one most aligned to the standards that we’re teaching.  And it does serve as a predictor to what the student will do on the ACT because it does lead up to it.”

Cindy Wilson, testing coordinator for Butler County Schools, agrees that ACT Aspire is a drastically better test than its predecessor for a fairly simple reason—the ARMT was just too easy.

“Aspire is not a popular test, probably, and I’m sure I’m in the minority as far as my feelings toward Aspire,” Wilson said. “But the ARMT was almost like everyone had figured it out toward the end.  For me, it just wasn’t showing a true indication of how the students were doing because everyone was just blowing it out of the water by the time we changed over. 

“So we definitely needed to step our game up; we needed something a lot more rigorous, and what we got was Aspire. It is aligned with the ACT, which is our college entrance exam. That’s not going away.”

Although a recent slew of critiques leveled at ACT Aspire might indicate that, more often than not, the test’s content and the material being taught in classrooms around the state don’t align.

Since the first ACT Aspire tests were given, not even half of Alabama’s students across all six tested grade levels have managed to meet the proficiency requirements of the test’s reading portion (eighth graders came the closest in 2014 with 48 percent).

The figures for the math portion are a bit higher among younger students (as high as 59 percent among third graders in 2016), but those numbers plummet among older students (only 27 percent of eighth graders were proficient in 2015).

In science, the proficiency level hovered between 23 percent for sophomores in 2016 to 39 percent for fifth graders that same year.

Wilson said that ACT Aspire’s difficulty has proved a large stumbling block for administrators and educators alike, but she added that the test’s difficulty is not inherently a problem.  In fact, she said that the test’s ability to measure students’ growth over time is a unique strength.

“The difference with the ARMT was that each grade level stood alone and you really couldn’t compare the kids as they moved through the grade levels,” Wilson said. “With Aspire, you can.  You can literally watch the kids grow from the time they take it in the third grade to the time they take it in the tenth grade. 

“For me, it’s a wonderful assessment to watch that growth. It is a hard test, and you have to step up your game if you’re going to succeed on it.  But my fear is that if they do away with Aspire, with the short amount of time that we’ve got, they’re going to pull the ARMT back off the shelf and give it to the students.  And to me, we’d be going backwards.”

Wilson added that the key difference of opinion between the federal government and ACT is leaving the state’s school systems trapped in between, with no clear solution in sight.

“You’ve got the federal government questioning whether the test is testing our standards,” Wilson said. “You’ve got ACT saying ‘yes, it is.’ So we’ve got a bit of a conflict here as to exactly who is correct in that matter—as to whether they’re testing what we teach or not.

“We don’t get to see the test, so of course we don’t know.  All we’ve got is two entities giving us conflicting information.”

The reason why no one can see the test is a simple matter of protocol.  All state assessments given in Alabama are prohibited from being viewed by administers of the test.  It’s a policy that has been in effect long before ACT Aspire came into play, according to Wilson.

She added that the policy was a safeguard against situations like the controversy that plagued Atlanta educators in 2015, in which a jury convicted 11 teachers of racketeering and other crimes for changing students’ test answers so that their scores wouldn’t reflect poorly on the school system.

As for ACT Aspire’s potential replacement, that is also a relative unknown, though a meeting Bryan attended last week indicated that Alabama might adopt Georgia’s standardized test.

“The Georgia test was the preferred one, if we bought one from a state,” Bryan said.  “That’s as of this week; who knows what it could be next week.  But we’ll have to learn that test, and be sure our standards are in alignment, or we’ll be in the same boat.”

Regardless of the change, Wilson said that one of the biggest problems facing the state’s education system is a lack of consistency.

“Unfortunately, the state of Alabama is known for giving one test for about three or four years, and then changing to another, and another,” Wilson said. “The state really needs to think things through, and for once let us have something long-term.”