Notes from ACT Aspire Webinar

A+ held a webinar in November for the media and other interested parties to talk about the changes Alabama will see with the results from the ACT Aspire that replaced the Alabama Reading and Math Test last spring.

The ACT Aspire is not part of the College and Career Ready Standards, but it is an important parallel change in Alabama education policy.

Alabama had a real need to move to higher-level tests that help make sure students graduate ready for real life after high school, whether going on to college or straight into a career. In 2013, only 1 in 5 Alabama high school graduates was ready for college based on the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks. And, among students who enrolled in college, 1 in 3 had to take remedial classes in math, English, or both.  Numbers like this present a significant problem. Just four years from now we can expect to see 82% of jobs in the state require some type of postsecondary education, whether that’s a four-year degree, a two-year degree, or industry certification.

Students first took the ACT Aspire in place of the Alabama Reading and Math Test (ARMT) last spring, and this year the ACT Explore for 8th graders and the ACT Plan for 10th graders will be phased out and replaced by ACT Aspire tests.

Notably, the ACT Aspire focuses on higher order thinking, unlike the ARMT.

Among other things, the ACT Aspire focuses less on multiple choice questions and more on open-response. In particular, this question has two parts, and it moves up Bloom’s Taxonomy from the first part to the second. The first part tests the student around the level of comprehension by asking her to summarize what she knows. Then the second part asks her to analyze what’s on the page with what she’s learned in class. Questions like this will help us get beyond “teaching to the test,” and instead let teachers focus on teaching students to think.

Additionally, the ACT Aspire will provide teachers, parents, and students with meaningful, honest feedback to help make sure students stay on track to graduate college and career ready. If students’ scores below the ACT Aspire Readiness Benchmarks listed below, teachers and parents can intervene to help make sure a student gets on track. ACT explains these benchmarks by saying, “Students who are at or above the benchmarks are on target for college readiness by the time they are in 11th grade.”

So what does this all mean?

For the first time, Alabama is assessing students at a high level, and it is doing it in a way that is providing meaningful information to teachers, parents and students that will help make sure they are on track to graduating college and career ready.

However, this does come with a challenge. When you raise the bar and change the measurement, there’s going to be an effect.

Starting this year, Alabama will see fewer students deemed “proficient.” Some may think this is a drop in scroes, but it’s only a shift in measurement. The ACT Aspire will measure students more like the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). In 2011, while the ARMT said roughly 80% of 4th graders were proficient in math, the NAEP said about 30% were. That’s a big difference. The ACT Aspire shifts down the whole scale of who is deemed “proficient” at any given grade level.

This is going to look really scary, but it’s the right thing to do.

For too long we’ve set the bar too low for students, both in Alabama and nationally. This is the tough medicine we need to take if we’re going to make sure students are really ready to compete for tomorrow’s jobs against people from all over the world.

The good news is, our students can—and will—rise to the occasion. In two or three years, we will see an upward trend in the percentage of proficient students as they meet the challenge of a higher bar in academics.

In the meantime, however, we have to understand that this shift in measurement looks worse than it actually is.


Contact [email protected] with any other questions, and stay tuned as we follow the Alabama State Department of Education’s progress on implementing its Plan 2020 strategies.

Click here for earlier post on ACT Assessments.

Click here for earlier post on expected drop in assessment scores.

Click here to download the A+ Memo on Alabama Assessments and other A+ publications for more background.