Students could be required to take ACT tests next year

Staff WriterAugust 4, 2011 

North Carolina's 11th-graders would be required to take the ACT college-admissions test next spring under a new testing regimen the State Board of Education discussed Wednesday.

A final decision is at least a month away. The legislature this year authorized the SBOE to administer the ACT, but did not budget any money for it. Part of the state Department of Public Instruction's challenge is finding money to give the tests.

The board has been talking for more than a year about requiring the ACT and associated high school tests as a way to measure school fitness and student readiness for work or academic life after graduation. It would cost about $6 million to give the ACT, a precursor called PLAN to 10th-graders, and a test called WorkKeys 25 percent of seniors.

The ACT is a standardized test that includes multiple-choice questions in English, math, reading and science, plus an optional writing test.

Initiating the ACT plan is one of the pivotal testing decisions the board plans to make in the coming months.

On the eve of the release of statewide standardized test results, the SBOE discussed seeking a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind program. Under the law, schools' progress is measured by the academic gains of subgroups of students. Schools fail to make adequate yearly progress if not all subgroups hit academic goals, which education officials criticize as an "all or nothing" standard.

The law is criticized for labeling some successful schools as failures. The state released individual school districts' adequate yearly progress results last month. Few Wake schools met the standard. Statewide results will be released today.

" 'All or nothing' doesn't reflect the progress and proficiency of our students," said June Atkinson, state superintendent of public instruction.

The U.S. Department of Education could use North Carolina's plan as an example for other states, she said.

The federal law was signed in 2001 and most states expected it to be rewritten by now. Several states, including South Dakota and Montana, have said they are going to defy provisions of the law and at least one other state, Kentucky, is seeking a waiver.

North Carolina would propose to replace the federal law with the state ABC accountability program, and use the ACT results, five-year-graduation rates and other measures as indicators of student readiness for college and jobs.

"We're not moving away from accountability," Atkinson said.

A decision on applying for a waiver won't come for a month or two.

No matter what they decide, changes are coming to the state's testing scheme, some forced by the legislature. The legislature eliminated state end-of-course tests for Algebra II, U.S. history, physical science, and civics and economics while endorsing the ACT plan.

Legislators were receptive to the idea of having a national test where North Carolina students scores could be compared to students in other states.

The SBOE says it wants to use the ACT because it measures what students learn in their classes. Students scores on the test predict students' grades in college courses in their first year.

The board talked about putting the cost of the ACT and related tests in its next state budget request.

In the meantime, the state Department of Public Instruction will ask the state budget office if it can use $6 million in "reversions," unspent money that gets turned back in, to pay for the tests.

lynn.bonner@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4821

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