ACT vs. PARCC: Which test shows if high schoolers are ready for college?
Divergent results from two tests measuring how prepared Illinois students are for college are causing much consternation among suburban educators.
Results from the ACT college entrance exam -- a long-standing measure of college readiness -- show roughly 46 percent of students statewide are meeting standards for college-level rigor in English, reading, mathematics and science, according to Illinois School Report Card data released today.
In comparison, partial results from the state's new standardized test that debuted in spring -- Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers or PARCC -- show less than one-third of students are meeting college-readiness standards.
Partial PARCC results released last month show roughly 70 percent of Illinois students tested online did not meet expectations in math and English language arts/literacy. Roughly 75 percent of all test takers statewide took the test online.
"PARCC says more kids are failing. ACT says the opposite, and that's the most stringent standard we have seen," said Scott Helton, superintendent of DuPage High School District 88, whose Addison Trail and Willowbrook high schools came close to the state's average ACT composite score of 20.5. "Is it really (a crisis) or is it just manufactured?"
The disconnect between the two test results is confusing, yet not entirely unexpected as state education officials have been warning student scores will be low in this first year of a new test.
Performance levels and proficiency thresholds for PARCC are aligned with the more rigorous Common Core State Standards. Yet, some educators say the bar has been set too high.
PARCC assessments -- which replace the Illinois Standards Achievement Test and Prairie State Achievement Exam, and which ultimately is expected to supplant the ACT -- are aimed at giving teachers, schools, students and parents better information about whether students are on track for college and careers. Statewide third- through 10th-graders took the tests -- designed to assess how students apply critical thinking to real-world issues and mastery of content.
Yet the test is "not fulfilling its promise," said Rita Fischer, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for Libertyville-Vernon Hills High School District 128, which has among the highest ACT composite scores in the suburbs -- higher than 25.
"In practice," she said, "the results are coming much too late to inform instruction."
ACT, SAT or PARCC?
For the first time, Illinois juniors were not required to take the ACT exam this year, even though the state funded the test. Since 2001, the state has provided funding for the ACT exam, but with the current budget crisis, future funding is up in the air.
State education officials are assessing whether to keep the test or go with its competitor, the SAT college admission exam offered by College Board, which is debuting a new test next year.
The estimated cost of a contract with a testing company is $6.8 million per year for a three-year term.
"We did seek bids for a college-entrance exam and are currently evaluating those bids," said Laine Evans, Illinois State Board of Education spokeswoman. "It is the intention of ISBE to fund a college-entrance exam, if the necessary assessment funding is provided for Fiscal Year 2016."
Suburban superintendents say ACT has worked well as a college entrance exam, and some districts are considering funding the test themselves.
"I budgeted to keep administering the ACT, even if the state does not, because at the end of the day, if you ask a college what matters to them, PARCC doesn't matter to them," said Fred Heid, superintendent of Algonquin-based Community Unit District 300. "ACT and SAT are true indicators of college readiness to the extent possible, so we remain committed to that."
The district's two high schools -- Hampshire and Jacobs in Algonquin -- exceed the state's average ACT score, while the third -- Dundee-Crown in Carpentersville -- falls below but is "closing the gap" with supports and interventions, Heid said.
District 300's PARCC scores were not included in the partial results released earlier because the district administered only paper tests.
Heid isn't putting much stock into them because he believes the results are skewed.
"You are telling me that across the entire state not a single high school student exceeded statewide expectations in math? That's not possible," he said. "I don't think it provides a realistic picture of what students are actually capable of doing. It's going to be a baseline that will measure future performance, but it will have no impact on our district."
It's unclear when complete district- and school-level PARCC scores will be released. The state has promised to get them to the districts by December, yet there is no set timeline, officials said.
Too much testing?
Educators say ACT is only one external measure of college readiness. Most school districts use multiple measures, including student performance in locally designed classroom tests and AP exams, to provide a complete picture of whether students are on track for college.
For now, ACT and PARCC results cannot be compared because they test different groups of high schoolers, said Mary Fergus, spokeswoman for Elgin Area School District U-46, the state's second-largest school district. Its five high schools -- Elgin, Larkin, Bartlett, Streamwood and South Elgin -- scored between 17 and 21 on the ACT.
"They are two different tests," Fergus said. "I think they are both useful. Over time we may be able to draw some parallels or use it as a point of comparison, but I think it's too soon right now."
Some educators are calling for eliminating PARCC assessments for high schoolers because the test is affecting instructional time and scheduling during junior year when students already are taking ACT and Advanced Placement exams.
"We need to limit the amount of instructional time that is lost to assessment," said Fischer, echoing sentiments in the Obama administration's new education plan that says testing should take up no more than 2 percent of instructional time. "We would like to see a college-entrance exam serve as the sole measure of high school accountability."
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