ACT Aspire Results Begin a New Era in Alabama Education

The Alabama State Department of Education made two very important announcements today:

First, they released the state-level aggregated results from the ACT Aspire test given last spring. And as most education leaders and teachers expected, the scores are more aligned with national measurements, placing them lower than levels under former assessments in Alabama.

Second, during a news conference for Governor Bentley and his Task Force on College and Career Readiness, State Superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice announced that Alabama’s graduation rate has jumped to an unprecedented 86%!

The graduation rate exceeded the 2014 target, and is on the path to reach the state’s goal of 90% by 2020. Now the State Board of Education’s adoption of higher-level testing, which is more in line with the higher standards, is paramount to Plan 2020’s success.

It is clear that the State Board is taking bold steps toward a more honest look and more congruent measurement of student achievement, which is a critical first step toward better preparing students for success after high school.

“ACT has been for decades one of the primary college-readiness tests trusted by students and institutions of higher education,” said A+ policy director, Thomas Rains. “Using ACT Aspire as a tool in the elementary and middle grades helps align students’ educational paths from one step to the next, giving teachers, parents, and students honest feedback about where they stand on the path toward being ready for real life after graduation. We commend the State Board of Education for taking a proactive, student-centered strategy toward improving education and raising the bar for all students.”

On the ACT Aspire, students are expected to perform at a higher level than on the old Alabama Reading and Math Test (ARMT) in order to be deemed “proficient.” While this change in measurement may look like a decline in performance, the difference in scores is an expected result of a change in measurement.

Results from the ACT Aspire cannot be compared to the ARMT results, and any attempt to do so would be irresponsible. The two assessments represent wholly different measurement systems of student achievement.

The ACT Aspire measures student achievement more like the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation’s Report Card, that is given to a random sample of students nationwide every two years. NAEP questions are more in-depth than ARMT questions, and are often open-ended instead of multiple-choice.

Additionally, the NAEP uses higher cut scores to determine who is deemed proficient. For example, according to the 2011 NAEP, less than 30% of Alabama fourth graders were proficient or advanced in math, while the ARMT classified nearly 80% as the equivalent (Level III or IV) in the same year. In reading, just over 30% of Alabama fourth graders were deemed proficient or advanced on the NAEP, while the ARMT said roughly 90% met those marks.

Over time, performance on the ACT Aspire is expected to rise as Alabama teachers continue to raise the bar to the level of the higher standards and encourage more critical thinking. (For more information on this difference, please see A+’s recent blog post and policy brief discussing the changes.)

Using the ACT Aspire in the lower grades complements Alabama’s assessment improvements in the upper grades. Unlike previous tests, the ACT Aspire provides meaningful feedback to help ensure students are on target for college and career readiness before graduation. ACT uses the following reading and math scores on the ACT Aspire in each grade as benchmarks to determine whether a student is on target for college readiness by the time they are in 11th grade.[1]

GradeReading ScoreMath Score

Today’s announcement by the State Department of Education only included state-level aggregate data, and it has not yet released system-level results on its website. However, each school system has received its scores that provide more detail on where its students stand.


The ACT Aspire represents an important part of Plan 2020—the State Board of Education’s (SBOE) strategic plan to ensure all Alabama students graduate from high school ready for real life, whether they continue their education or go straight into a career. The release of the first-year scores sets the benchmarks for Plan 2020, and from this year forward a student’s achievement path will be far more clear and understandable for parents and teachers.

The SBOE adopted the ACT Aspire in April 2013 to replace the Alabama Reading and Math Test for 3rd-8th grades. The new test was developed for Alabama by the well-known non-profit organization ACT, which also administers the college-readiness test of the same name. The test is aligned to Alabama’s new nationally benchmarked College and Career Ready standards adopted in 2010.

By choosing the ACT Aspire, Alabama charted its own course in education policy and declined to use either national assessment aligned to the Common Core State Standards designed by consortia of states, Smarter Balance and PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers).

Click here to download the A+ policy brief on Alabama’s Assessments.

Click here for notes from the A+ assessments webinar, and download the presentation.

Click here for A+’s latest publication, “Alabama Public Education at a Glance.”

[1] ACT Aspire, “ACT College and Career Readiness Standards,”, last accessed Dec. 11, 2014.