Unless the Alabama State Department of Education can explain to federal officials how ACT Aspire aligns with the state’s college and career readiness standards, students may be taking the standardized test for the last time this spring.
Several local education officials say that's fine with them.
In a Jan. 6 letter, the U.S. Department of Education questioned whether the test accurately aligns with what is being taught in Alabama’s classrooms and has threatened to withhold federal Title I funding. The state started using ACT Aspire in 2013 to measure how students are performing and to comply with federal accountability requirements.
State Superintendent Michael Sentance told school board members last month he wants to move away from ACT Aspire.
Several local education officials support his call to stop using ACT Aspire, one saying: “It’s like we’re teaching students to grow apples and the test is asking them how to grow oranges.”
Decatur City Schools Superintendent Dan Brigman said ACT Aspire is intended to measure whether students are ready for the ACT.
“The best assessment to accurately measure teaching and learning is one that is developed in Alabama and based on the standards being taught,” Brigman said. “Through the support of our tremendous university system and the outstanding educators who are charged with delivering instruction to our students, Alabama has the capacity to develop annual assessments that are better aligned with our state standards.”
Hartselle students have some of the best ACT Aspire scores in the state, but Superintendent Vic Wilson said he’s not a fan of the test. He said he is concerned about the state’s inability to “clearly delineate where learners are, due to the constant changes with accountability measurers.”
For the past five years, Alabama has used the Alabama Reading and Mathematics Test (ARMT), ARMT Plus and ACT Aspire to measure how students are performing.
“These changes make it difficult to understand where we are from a proficiency and achievement standpoint,” Wilson said.
He said he is concerned about what will replace ACT Aspire.
“We can do our own, but that takes time ... to ensure we have high quality,” Wilson said.
The state may not have much time.
The federal government is threatening to withhold the state’s federal Title I money. Title I funds help schools with high poverty levels, and Decatur receives about $2.7 million annually, according to Chief Financial Officer Melanie Maples.
“We can’t afford to lose this funding,” she said.
Morgan County Superintendent Bill Hopkins Jr. said his district doesn’t have a problem with ACT Aspire, but he wants the state to come up with a test that is vetted by boots on the ground.
“The boots on the ground are our teachers who see and work with students every day,” he said.
Hopkins said his issue with the tests Alabama has used to measure students is that educators were not involved with development.
“We don’t want something that’s created at the political level,” he said. “We also need a test that has a clear target for students, and the expectations should be clearly spelled out.”
Alabama was the first state to adopt ACT Aspire, which is considered to be the toughest standardized test in the nation.
One local education official said the move from ARMT to ACT Aspire was like sending high school kids to the National Football League and expecting them immediately to perform like All-Pro players.
The penalty for low ACT Aspire scores is heavy in Alabama. These scores will account for 80 percent of the letter grade schools and districts are scheduled to receive, plus the ACT Aspire scores are used to generate the state’s failing schools list.
Alabama and Arkansas are the only states that continue to use ACT Aspire to measure how students are performing.
The letter from the U.S. Department of Education said Alabama’s assessments in math, reading and science “partially meet requirements” but added that the state has to “provide substantial additional information” to show that ACT Aspire aligns with state standards.