The Problem With Using the ACT as a High School Exit Exam

Mississippi has a plan to use the college entrance exam to measure its students' readiness to graduate.
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Feb 26, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

The ACT has stressed out high school students since 1959. That’s when two University of Iowa faculty members created the test as a counter to the SAT, which had been established 58 years earlier. Both standardized tests judge a student’s ability to do well in college, and either or both are used by institutions for college admittance.

Now Mississippi students may have to worry about taking the test even if they just want to graduate from high school. Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, state House members, and school superintendents are pushing a proposal in the state legislature to use the ACT college test as a high school exit exam for public school students.

If House Bill 767 is adopted, Mississippi would become the first state to set a minimum composite score on the ACT that students would have to meet to graduate from high school.

The proposal has a lot of political support. The House passed a version of the bill earlier this month. The state Senate will consider the bill soon.

If it passes, a research team from the University of Mississippi will create a pilot program with 10 school districts to administer the tests to high school juniors. Mississippi State Rep. John Moore, the bill’s sponsor, has said he hopes that after a year, the test would go statewide.

Schools across the United States require students to pass exit exams to receive a high school diploma. These “high-stake tests,” as many educators call them, have long been criticized, even though many states allow students to retake the tests if they fail. Twenty-six states, including Mississippi, require exit exams or have plans to institute them soon. Most of the states use the tests to measure reading, writing, and math. In Mississippi the ACT would substitute for the four graduation exams that are already in place, which cover biology, English, algebra, and U.S. history.

The new bill would also give the legislature power to set the passing score. Currently, the state Board of Education sets these numbers on exit exams.

This week, the Mississippi Board of Education approved the Common Core State Standards for the 2014–15 school year. Some opponents to the ACT bill say that the Common Core tests being developed for student assessments by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a multistate group, will better align with what students learn in school. They say this is what an exit exam is supposed to do, and an ACT test doesn’t perform the same function.

“This switch would raise serious questions about the extent to which the current high school curriculum aligns with the ACT (and the extent to which it should),” says Jerusha Conner, an assistant professor of education at Villanova University. “College-bound students, who would otherwise have to take the ACT or SAT as part of the college application process, may not be adversely affected by this switch and might appreciate the testing reprieve it represents; however, research shows that students who barely fail exit exams are more likely than their peers who barely pass to drop out of school entirely.”

According to the Board of Education, 28,000 Mississippi students took the ACT in 2013 and scored an average of 18.9. The national average is 20.9. The students scored below the college-ready level in math, reading, and science and above the level in English. Conner, who has written numerous papers on contributors to student stress, including standardized tests, says that some estimates suggest that as many as a quarter of Mississippi students would fail to earn their diplomas if the required ACT composite score were set at 15.

Proponents of the bill believe using the ACT will better prepare students for college. One Mississippi school superintendent, Ronnie McGehee, is a believer because he says the ACT is a well-known test students care about more than other exit exams. "The ACT is the gatekeeper of where you can go after the secondary experience," he says.

Kate McKeon, president of Prepwise in New York City, tutors high school and postcollege students to prepare for the undergraduate and graduate school admission process. She says that ACT is for college-bound students specifically. “To provide a reasonable assessment for the sake of high school graduation, the ACT composite score would have to be sufficiently low and the test itself would have to expand its lower quadrant of questions to become a valid assessment among those who are not college bound,” she says.

McKeon is not the only one who says this new bill is about big business, not students. “Rather than attract paying students aiming for competitive collegeswhere the ACT has made gains this past decadethe ACT will shift its business model to pursue state legislatures,” she says. “The ACT has much to gain in revenue by pursuing the high school graduation demarcation, with 3 million graduating annually, but I would expect competitive colleges and universities to drop the ACT as a valid measure of future student success. Thus, pushing the ACT back to a regional test, or a test for kids who can't cut it on the SAT, as it is still seen by many in higher education.”

Bob Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest National Center for Fair & Open Testing, says his organization has reached out to Mississippi legislators about their proposal. “The use of the ACT as an exit exam would be bad policy,” he says. “The test has never been validated for that purpose. Such use violates the Standards for Educational and Psychological Measurement, the testing profession's own guidelines.”

Schaeffer says the ACT has been incorporated into Illinois' Prairie State Achievement Test but “only after careful research and adaptation to make sure it is consistent with the state's curriculum standards.”

This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.