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College-Ready Wars Update: Alabama Leaves Test Consortia

Published:  February 1, 2013
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It seems that the stakes in the college-ready war have been raised. Today, Education Week broke the news that Alabama was pulling out as a participant in both Common Core testing consortia, PARCC and SmarterBalanced. Previously on Ed Money Watch, I noted that Alabama was getting ahead of the curve by implementing more rigorous assessments to measure students’ postsecondary preparedness before the new Common Core tests were ready to be delivered in the 2014-15 school year. I still believe this is a practical move for states that want better indicators now that their students are college- and career-ready (even better would be to collect evidence of students’ readiness based on their post-high school outcomes, like college enrollment, credit accumulation, and remediation rates).

In Alabama’s case, the new testing system was aligned to ACT’s battery of assessments – EXPLORE, PLAN, and the ACT. But as today's news and the state’s pending waiver request shows, this system is anything but temporary. In fact, the waiver request does not include their participation in either consortia as evidence the state adopted college- and career-ready assessments. Instead, the state touts their new system based on the ACT framework and indicates this is the system that will be in place in 2014-15. The news isn’t really news at all.

It was easy to see it coming. ACT was originally slated to work with PARCC to help develop their assessments, but wiggled out of the contract with plans to develop their own linked system of college- and career-ready assessments from kindergarten through high school into postsecondary. As I warned in my earlier post, for states like Alabama and Kentucky using the ACT and other established measures of college readiness, “it could be even more challenging to transition to Common Core benchmarks now that these states have institutionalized the ACT benchmarks.”

There’s a lot to be said for using ACT as a college-ready measure. The ACT is already accepted as a measure of readiness by those who actually make that decision: higher education institutions. ACT scores are used in college admissions decisions, and the ACT COMPASS exam is commonly used to determine whether students require remediation. On the other hand, no college has guaranteed they will use the PARCC or SmarterBalanced assessments for these decisions. While many higher education leaders are supportive of the Common Core effort, they have not yet had to make the ultimate decision that their standards for college readiness are the same as those adopted by forty-six states through the Common Core effort.  

Is this a sign of things to come? I wouldn’t be surprised if other states decide to go the ACT-route rather than stick with the consortia. That said, Alabama is less of a bellwether state than Massachusetts, Florida, or California. Leaving the consortia is also different than abandoning the Common Core entirely. There are still common academic standards across forty-six states and two comparable, high-quality assessments in development. But given that states seem to be considering the ACT as a serious alternative, it will be critical for both consortia to demonstrate their comparability to ACT and highlight any advantages their assessments offer.

More important, the consortia and Common Core advocates must engage more seriously with higher education to ensure their work is not a wasted effort. If the new standards promise to truly reflect “the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers,” the only way to fulfill that promise is for mastery of the Common Core to be accepted as the definition of readiness by both secondary and postsecondary education. States’ public higher education systems control specific policies related to financial aid eligibility, admissions, credit-granting, dual enrollment, and remediation, among others, that will either promote or inhibit the Common Core. In order for authentic implementation of the Common Core to happen, the new standards and assessments must permeate not only K-12 policy, but also these policies at the postsecondary level.

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