Illinois is poised to become the first state in the nation to require all high school juniors to take the ACT college-entrance exam.

The $5 million plan, announced in June by state Supt. Max McGee and enthusiastically endorsed by CEO Paul Vallas, gets underway in spring 2001, when 11th-graders will spend seven hours over two days taking the new Prairie State Achievement Exam, which will include the ACT.

Chicago will continue to administer the 9th-grade Tests of Achievement and Proficiency in reading, as well the Chicago Academic Standards Exam (CASE), which is a series of end-of-semester tests in core subjects.

CASE “is directly aligned to the state standards. Giving it will ensure that high schools are addressing those standards,” says Chief Accountability Officer Philip Hansen.

Officials of the Illinois State Board of Education maintain that students will take state testing more seriously now that entrance to college will hinge in part on how well they perform. “We needed something to break down that wall of kids who just won’t care about [tests] and blow it off,” says Tom Hernandez, spokesperson for the state board.

Specifically, the Prairie State will consist of:

The ACT college-entrance tests in reading, English, math and science reasoning.

The ACT Work Keys tests of reading for information and applied math, which are designed to gauge job-related skills for entry-level positions.

State-designed tests of writing, science content and social studies.

Students can re-take any or all of these tests in 12th grade if they want to try to improve their scores, which will go into their permanent records. The state will pay for the first retake, but students must pay for a second re-take. The state is sending preparation materials to teachers before the school year begins; students will get handbooks in October.

Chicago plans to offer training for teachers in the commercial Kaplan ACT preparation program, and will administer two ACT “pre-tests” this year, says Hansen. One pre-test, EXPLORE, will be given to freshmen, and the other, the PLAN, will be given to sophomores; both will be administered in the fall. Iowa-based ACT Inc. designed the tests to cover the same subjects as the ACT itself; PLAN includes an estimated ACT score.

While high school exit exams are becoming increasingly popular across the country, Illinois school officials insist that “passing” the Prairie State will never become a graduation requirement. For one, ACT Inc. “will not allow its product to be used as part of a graduation requirement. That’s in our contract with them,” says Carmen Chapman-Pfeiffer, the state board’s division administrator for assessment.

Hansen considers the Prairie State “a good exit summary for high school, if not an exit exam.” It’s still unclear how Chicago and the state will use the exam to judge schools, but Hansen, who serves on a state task force that will decide the matter, expects other factors, such as student mobility, will be taken into account along with test scores.

Kymara Chase, a DePaul University education instructor who oversees the School Achievement Structure reform program, says that using the ACT instead of the IGAP and ISAT makes sense “because that’s what’s required by colleges and universities. It’s been the standard for years.”

The state’s learning goals and its high school curriculum requirements, Chase adds, “are becoming more oriented toward college-bound work, with four years of math, more science and so on. … And even if students aren’t going [to college], schools should be teaching them to that level anyway.”

Will Stigall, assistant principal of King High School, echoes the state’s argument that all students should be exposed to the ACT and consider higher education. “We’re trying to get all of [our students] aimed in that direction,” he says. “For some of them, it might pique their interest in college.” King, which is being transformed into a college-prep magnet school, plans to offer evening test-preparation sessions to minimize the amount of classroom time used to gear up for the exam.

What about standards?

However, some experts question using a test that is not aligned with the state’s own learning standards.

“The ACT’s purpose isn’t to gauge achievement on those standards,” notes Karen Hartke, spokesperson for Cambridge, Mass.-based FairTest, an organization that fights abuses of standardized testing. “It’s to predict how well students will do in college. You’re using a test basically for a purpose for which it was not designed.”

Echoing that criticism, University of Chicago Prof. Tony Bryk, director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research, adds: “It’s not clear how you organize curriculum and instruction so kids do well on it.”

The historical performance gaps between whites and blacks is another troubling aspect of the ACT, Bryk notes. Still, the ACT is a major “gatekeeper” to higher education, Bryk adds, and it’s a good idea to expose as many students as possible to the test. “Having everybody have some experience with it is a good reason to [use] it.”

Last February, the state board recruited English, math and science teachers from across the state to comb through the ACT and compare its questions to the state learning standards. The teachers concluded that the test accurately measured most of the learning goals, says Chapman-Pfeiffer, but suggested that separate tests of writing and science content and social science were needed as well. The questions for the science and social science tests were piloted last year with 11th-graders across the state.

But, Bryk notes, “Real alignment isn’t post-hoc. It’s not the test you would construct if you started out with the standards and built a test around it.”

Frank Candioto, principal of Foreman High School, says using the ACT isn’t much different from using the old ISAT and IGAP, and questions the worth of the tests in general.

Candioto says, “They tell us they want kids to work in groups, become problem-solvers and work cooperatively, then we come up with these tests that are a lot of information feedback.”

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