In his State-of-the-State speech, Governor Brownback proposed five goals for Kansas education. The fifth goal was for Kansas to “...offer every Kansas high school student, at no additional cost to parents, the choice of taking either the ACT college entrance exam or the Work Keys assessment.”
I have seen the bad effects of the gao kao exam in China, the GCSE across the British Commonwealth, and the high school exit exams in Japan and South Korea. These information-laden tests worldwide drive teachers to teach-to-the-test, just as the Kansas state assessments have taken away many teachers’ professionalism in curricular design. This is a major reason many veteran teachers and the best of our new teachers leave the classroom.
But the Governor’s recommendation on the ACT is a good proposal.
In contrast to state tests that turn creative teachers into test-prep drill-masters, the ACT is an aptitude test, not an achievement test. Questions are designed to measure a student’s aptitude, or ability to apply methods and logic when they confront unique new problems, not their memorization of specific content. So it is difficult to teach-to-the-ACT. The small improvements seen in ACT test-prep sessions are due to familiarizing a student with the test format, and learning techniques we call “test-mechanics.”
The ACT should be provided free to all Kansas students. Currently, 20 states already fund the ACT test for all of their students in their senior year. That list includes neighboring Colorado and Missouri.
But over the last five years nationwide, the proportion of high school students aspiring to a college education has dropped by 6 percent. And there are one million fewer American students attending college today than a decade ago, a shortfall currently filled by international students. And for the first time in U.S. history, the five-year post-college cohort of Americans has less college education than the next older five-year generation. Unlike all other developed countries, the United States is becoming a less-educated society.
The 20 states that give the ACT to all high school seniors made one important discovery. Some high school seniors who would not have taken the ACT on their own, and who were not considering attending college, discovered from their ACT scores that they were indeed college-ready and college-able. America needs those students in the college classroom.
So what about the Work Keys assessment? Nationwide over the last five years, the number of students wanting to pursue vocational, technical and two-year degrees increased by 2 percent. America does have a shortage of welders and mechanics and plumbers—jobs that often pay more than a college graduate may earn. The Work Keys focus on applied math, graphic literacy, and workplace documents. But the genuine credentials are welding certificates and other real-life skill documents that are awarded by professions after high school. The generic Work Keys National Career Readiness Certificate is no substitute for the ACT.
But by far, the real benefit of adopting the ACT for every student lies in discontinuing the state assessments. In December 2016, the KSBE received a study that demonstrated the Kansas assessments and the ACT were essentially equivalent.
In addition, the ESSA that replaces No Child Left Behind specifically allows states to use the ACT in place of the high school assessments.
Providing the ACT to all Kansas seniors and ditching the redundant state assessments not only saves money, but begins a long overdue journey back to teacher professionalism, where teachers use unique teaching to educate unique students. Standards and standardized testing may work for quality control on a factory assembly line where raw materials are uniform. But students come to our classes unique and they should graduate out unique.
That was the strength of the American education system and it is time for teacher professional judgement to return to the American classroom. But adding the ACT without ending state assessments just adds more testing to our test-overloaded schools.
And any Kansas farmer knows, the more time you spend weighing them, the less time you have to feed them.