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Colorado Gets an Awkward Christmas Present: The SAT

It’s almost Christmas, friends! We will all sit down tomorrow morning and unwrap a bunch of gifts while stuffing our faces with various tasty treats. Some of those gifts will be awesome. Action figures, video games, and bikes spring immediately to mind. Other gifts—socks, weird-flavored chocolates, and gift certificates to restaurants you hate—will be less exciting. When you open those awkward gifts, you’ll have that uncomfortable moment where you’re stuck between needing to be polite and wanting to ask loudly what in the world the person who gave you the gift was thinking.

I’m having on of those moments right now.

You see, Colorado education is getting its own awkward Christmas present this year: A shift away from the venerable, well-respected ACT. Instead, high school juniors will now take the SAT, a creation of the College Board (of APUSH fame). I’ll try to be as polite as possible in the face of this weird gift, but I am unable to refrain from asking an important question: Huh?

I first heard about the possibility of a shift in college-entrance exams last week, and I was enormously confused. Every high school junior in Colorado has taken the ACT since 2001. In the 14 years since then, there have been very few complaints about the test. It is a near-universally accepted way to measure whether kids are leaving the K-12 system ready for college or career, and it is the preferred college-entrance exam among Colorado colleges and universities. Heck, it was the one testing issue on which everyone seemed able to agree during last year’s high-stakes game of legislative testing chicken.

By comparison, the SAT is nearly irrelevant in Colorado. Only about 6,500 Colorado students who graduated last spring took the test during high school. That’s a tiny number compared to the 57,000 Colorado students took the ACT this year under state law.

My confusion was compounded by the fact that barely a week after I saw the first story, Chalkbeat reported that the Colorado Department of Education abruptly made the decision to switch to SAT. No vote of the Colorado State Board of Education was required, and no real opportunity was given for public input. This was a very big decision, and it feels for all the world like it was rushed through as quickly and quietly as possible.

The big changes don’t stop with the 11th grade test, either. HB 1323, last year’s testing compromise bill, replaced the 10th grade PARCC exam with a test designed to measure students’ readiness for the big college-entrance exam the following year. That means 10th graders will now be taking the PSAT to get ready for the SAT instead of a prep test for the ACT.

To make things even more interesting, these new tests will be administered this school year. That means that unless CDE cooks up some sort of haphazard flexibility system in just a few short months, all those kiddos and teachers who have been preparing for the ACT are going to be in for a surprise.

So, what happened? As it turns out, the jarring competitive bidding process between ACT and SAT was required by a subtle change HB 1323 made to language dealing with the college-entrance exam given in 11th grade to Colorado juniors. Color Little Eddie surprised on this one; it flew completely under my radar until last week—as did the fact that the entire process would be carried out in the absence of State Board hearings or discussion.

But I’m not the only one feeling a bit ambushed by this whole deal. Boulder Valley School District Superintendent Bruce Messinger said this (from the Chalkbeat article linked above):

“With all the change that’s gone on with the PARCC assessments, and new literacy assessments … the ACT was really the only longitudinal data we have had to go and look at over time. I guess it’s a fresh start on all fronts now.”

Bruce’s point is a good one. Thanks to the ACT, we have more than a decade of comparable data on how ready our high schoolers are to face the realities of life after school. Granted, those data haven’t exactly shown any exciting trends in recent years, but the fact remains that they are useful when it comes to gauging the efficacy of our education system over time. Now, we’ll need to essentially restart the trend line.

We may not even be able to reliably compare our data to other states next year. While the ACT is administered to 11th or 12th grade students through statewide partnerships in 19 states, only two states—Delaware and Idaho—and the District of Columbia administer the SAT during the school day to all high school juniors or seniors.

Maybe all this disruption would be worth it if we were getting a considerably better test. But by nearly all accounts, that simply isn’t the case. Eagle County School District Superintendent Jason Glass had this to say (also in the Chalkbeat article):

“The quality (of the tests offered by the two vendors) is not a huge question. So if they are equivalent tests, then why would you make this seismic shift that is going to have all these ripple effects? It seems the juice is not worth the squeeze. It’s going to be a lot of work to make this transition and the outcomes are not going to be that radically different.”

I like Jason a lot, but he and I differ very significantly in our views on education policy. You know something is a bit weird when we are in complete agreement, as is the case here. If we aren’t expecting anything other than slight quality differences between the tests, why in the world would we take the path of most resistance?

I frankly don’t know what the selection committee was thinking. Maybe they believed, as I’ve heard, the PSAT that 10th graders will now take is better aligned with the Colorado Academic Standards. Maybe the SAT is cheaper, more focused on critical thinking than “fact recall,” or easier to administer. Or maybe there was some concern about data privacy.

I won’t know the committee’s exact reasoning know until details start to emerge. But I will say this: I hope the committee had some very good reasons for making the decision it did. From where I sit, destabilizing the only remaining constant in our testing and accountability system—and especially the one that is arguably the most important measure of our education system’s “end product”—is a huge mistake. It is most certainly not the Christmas present Colorado education wanted after a year of flux.

Merry Christmas, and good luck with your own awkward Christmas presents!