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ACT Official Describes ‘Next Generation’ Tests

After the ACT announced plans this month for a new assessment system, an array of provocative headlines followed. The Associated Press proclaimed: “Kindergarten Career Test in the Works by ACT.”

Is that an accurate description?

Not really. On Thursday morning, Jon Erickson, president of the ACT’s education division, stopped by The Chronicle’s office to discuss the organization’s plans for its new “college and career readiness” testing system, a digital assessment scheduled to make its debut in 2014. Initially, the system will span grades 3 through 12; later it will expand to cover kindergarten through the second grade.

In short, the purpose of the new series of tests isn’t to identify the 5-year-olds who will go on to become doctors, engineers, and asbestos-removal technicians, as deliciously terrifying as that might sound. There will not be a question designed to weed out those who aren’t cut out to be astronauts.

As described by Mr. Erickson, the system will assess skills and knowledge associated with success in college and careers, starting with basic reading and mathematical ability, and then progressing to higher-level skills. It will track students’ academic progress and professional goals. And it will include measurements of “academic behavioral skills,” such as teamwork and motivation.

The assessments, Mr. Erickson said, will help teachers understand which students need help with what as they go along (within courses, at the end of courses, and at the end of the academic year). “This will provide a running movie of students,” he said, “rather than a single snapshot in time.”

I asked Mr. Erickson what admissions and enrollment officers should know about the tests, which would culminate with the ACT examination. “First, they should know that, hopefully, the pool of students will be larger and more prepared, and that they will hopefully see a reduction in the need for remediation,” he said. “Second, there will be opportunities for them to get a feel for what the coming groups of students look like, what their interests are.”

Many details—such as the content of the tests, and the costs to states that adopt the assessments—have yet to be revealed. In the coming months, some educators will probably hail the ACT’s new system as a breakthrough even as others, wary of too much testing, will condemn it.

Mr. Erickson described the system as a way of unlocking the power of data in real time—and of confronting challenges students encounter well before they’re old enough to apply to college. “We know that if you’re off-track even by middle school,” Mr. Erickson said, “it can be too late.”

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