Sudden changes to statewide student assessments announced earlier this month have surprised many superintendents of local school districts, including Chris Timmis, the superintendent of Dexter Community Schools. Beginning in the spring of 2016, high school juniors will take the SAT exam in place of the ACT, which has been used as an annual test to assess student performance since 2007.
The change is due to a three-year, $17.1 million competitive-bid contract won by College Board, which administers the SAT test. The Michigan Department of Education said the SAT bid cost $15.4 million less than the bid put in by the ACT. High school juniors will still be tested using the ACT WorkKeys assessment to test students’ preparedness to effectively enter the workforce. The three-year WorkKeys contract will cost $12.2 million.
Timmis expressed his surprise to We Love Dexter staff on Jan. 14. Timmis said he learned about the change Jan. 7 — the same morning it was announced in a Michigan Department of Education press release.
“It was the first time we had heard anything,” Timmis said. “There weren’t even any rumors that there would be a legitimate change.”
Timmis said over three years, students will be tested with three different statewide examinations.
Last year, students took the ACT, WorkKeys exam and the Michigan Merit Exam. This spring, students will take ACT, WorkKeys, and the temporary Michigan Student Test of Education Progress, or M-STEP. In 2016, students will be taking the SAT, WorkKeys and a third test, which is still undecided, that will replace the M-STEP.
“Three years in a row, we’re going to be giving three completely different assessments to see how well we’re doing,” Timmis said. “So, the challenge is how we really know if we’re getting better or not.”
Timmis said the district will continue to teach students what they need to know in order to be both college and career ready.
“The challenge for us is that it comes down to the lowest bidder now dictating where we are going to be ranked and how we’re going to assess what we taught (students),” Timmis said. “I’m not sure if that’s the way you want the system to work.”
Timmis said using taxpayer dollars effectively is very important, but the implications of test results like the ACT, SAT, WorkKeys, Michigan Merit Exam and M-STEP are extremely powerful judges of school districts that affect funding and performance ranks.
“The SAT is a good product, but the challenge for us is what it’s used for,” Timmis said. “In the state of Michigan, (they will use) the high school test to rank, select and sort schools. The SAT is a measurement to be able to help students and colleges get an idea of how well a kid is prepared for university studies.”
The SAT will be completely redesigned for the 2016 school year to meet Michigan content standards.
“It’s a brand new version — a complete overhaul,” Timmis said. “So, we’re going to judge the rankings of our schools and the progress of our schools on how well we’re improving the learning of kids based on who gave a bid for a product nobody has seen. We have the possibility to be sanctioned by a product that isn’t even given right now because it’s a brand new product.”
Timmis said he has seen firsthand how test scores in Dexter Community Schools have influenced state funding.
“There have been dollars allocated by the state the last three years now in a row tied directly to our test score growth,” Timmis said.
High test scores can cause a school to be ranked as a rewards school and recognized for performance growth. Lower scores can lead to federal sanctions and cause a school to be labeled as a focus school or priority school.
Michigan annually assesses 11th-graders’ knowledge of certain areas during spring testing. Timmis said the Dexter school district has had predictive tools in place for years to help prepare students for the ACT. The switch over to the SAT in 2016 will cost the district money to modify schools’ curricula to prepare students for the new test, and to make sure students are still being taught information they need to know by their junior year for the new assessment.
“This is really just an example of what is going on in education,” Timmis said. “We’ve been reforming education for 25 or 30 years now. Everybody has an idea on how to change it, but they don’t understand the implications of the change. So, the man hours and everything that will go into a test instead of going into teaching and helping kids grow is the reality of what we’ll be working on instead.”
According to Timmis, most students in southeastern Michigan take the ACT test before applying for college. Timmis said he anticipates many students will be taking the SAT in 2016 for free during school testing, but will then have to pay out of pocket in order to take the ACT on weekends.
“We’re getting to the point that you wonder whether we’re testing just for the sake of testing,” Timmis said.
ACT, Inc. sent a letter to the state of Michigan’s chief procurement officer Jan. 12 requesting an appeal hearing on the state’s decision currently favoring the SAT. The letter, available online via the Detroit Free Press, claims that the bid entered by the ACT was higher because it included an optional writing portion in the assessment.