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College-Ready Wars: Common Core vs. ACT and the College Board

Published:  October 11, 2012
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Flickr photo by albertogp123

As I wrote last week on Ed Money Watchstates are so concerned over Common Core implementation that many have not established the necessary policy structures to ensure the effort will deliver on its college- and career-ready promise. Most states have adopted curriculum standards that incorporate the knowledge and skills students need to meet postsecondary expectations, and two state consortia, PARCC and SmarterBalanced, are developing assessments that accurately measure student mastery of these competencies. But the majority has only begun to fight the battle for performance standards that inform high school graduation policies, school and educator accountability systems, and higher education admissions and placement decisions.

Adopting college- and career-ready performance standards for high school graduation will be particularly challenging because it requires intense coordination between K-12 and higher education when the Common Core is largely perceived as a K-12 initiative. Given the substantial resources invested by states, the federal government, and corporate and private philanthropy, Common Core supporters should be alarmed by postsecondary institutions’ ambivalence toward Common Core, especially because the initiative faces stiff competition.

Despite the PARCC and SmarterBalanced hysteria, the SAT and ACT – along with their remedial placement cousins, ACCUPLACER and COMPASS – are likely to continue to serve as the de facto performance standard for college entry. These assessments are already accepted within higher education, for better or worse, while the Common Core will be greeted with scrutiny and suspicion at many institutions.

Further, some states, like Kentucky and Alabama, have not been waiting for the new tests to arrive. Instead, they are using ACT’s assessment system to measure students’ postsecondary readiness in high school now. This is a logical, smart response to the demand for college-ready students, since it will be three years before the Common Core tests are fully ready. But, it could be even more challenging to transition to Common Core benchmarks now that these states have institutionalized the ACT benchmarks.

More significant, ACT and College Board are positioning themselves to directly compete with the Common Core – and win. Rather than collaborate with PARCC, ACT announced its own next-generation assessment system, which is aligned to Common Core and includes formative and summative assessments offered from elementary to postsecondary. Similarly, the College Board’s incoming president and Common Core architect, David Coleman, has big plans for the SAT, “transforming it from an aptitude test intended to control for varying levels of school quality, to a knowledge test aligned with the Common Core.” And don’t forget about College Board’s increasingly-popular Advanced Placement exams, offering students an edge in the admissions process and accepted for credit at many institutions.

But what about the COMPASS and ACCUPLACER? Since the majority of students attend non-selective colleges, these remedial placement exams are often the real barrier to entry in higher education. Students identified for remediation are much less likely to complete their degree. Although neither ACT nor College Board has formally announced changes to these assessments, if their plans for the ACT and SAT are any indication, both organizations will act to align their remedial tests to the Common Core, building the case further for higher education to stick with what they know.

If this is the case, in five years it’s likely that students in many states will need to pass PARCC or SmarterBalanced tests to graduate high school, and schools and teachers will be evaluated on how well their students perform on these tests. But students will also need to ace the SAT and their AP exams to get into a selective college and pass the ACCUPLACER to avoid remediation in their local community college – just as they do today.

Would this mean the Common Core ‘failed?’ Hardly. Establishing common curriculum standards in forty-six states and two comparable, high-quality assessments of these standards is no small feat. The Common Core is a vast improvement over most state standards and tests currently in use. And its development required a tremendous amount of work and dedication from state policy leaders, educators, and advocates. But it could be so much more.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a readymade solution to offer, although uniform remedial placement policies based on K-12 performance standards are a good starting point for states. Still, Common Core supporters must begin to look beyond the implementation challenges within K-12 education and focus more of their attention where college readiness is ultimately determined: the postsecondary admissions and placement process dominated by the SAT and ACT exams. If they don’t, odds are on the existing players – the College Board and ACT – to carry the day.

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