Reconsidering ACT testing and school report cards after the pandemic

Bubble sheet test with pencil | Getty Images
Bubble sheet test with pencil | Getty Images

The mandatory ACT student testing dates were set; contracts with testing vendors were signed; nothing could be changed. Republicans in the state Assembly and Senate wanted to use the test requirement to force all schools to open. Milwaukee and Madison school districts were especially targeted because they had no plans to open until after the last ACT testing dates. 

But the hammer of student testing didn’t work. It did not force schools to open.

Milwaukee and Madison ignored the testing dates as a consideration for school reopening. Instead, they will bring 11th graders into schools for testing only and send them right back home. Schools would open only when the districts felt safe. Other school districts around the state would remain hybrid with students coming to school two days a week. Their students would take the ACT, but they would not be intimidated into offering five days a week of in-school instruction.

There are good reasons why Milwaukee Public Schools did not open earlier and why so many in the Milwaukee community fear sending the children back to school, says Milwaukee Superintendent Keith Posley. “There is some apprehension out there,” he says, citing letters, emails and surveys. “The average age of our buildings is 85 years old… You know what kind of ventilation system you have… We have large schools in the district that don’t have the room to spread 6 feet apart… We don’t have ample cafeteria space.”

The final window for ACT paper/pencil testing was to be April 13. Additional online computer testing dates were April 13-15 and 2022. Milwaukee would have 11th grade students come in only for the online April testing dates. Madison elected to begin in-person 11th grade instruction on April 27, two days a week; it would bring in 11th grade students only to take the ACT on April 13.

Who will take the test?

There were signs that test participation in Milwaukee would be extremely low. Students were surveyed in order to have enough computers and classrooms set up for computer testing. By the end of the first week of March, only 33-34% said they were willing to take the test. Posley wasn’t sure if even half of the district’s  11th graders would take the test. As of this writing, Madison hasn’t offered any pretesting survey results.

In Racine, classrooms opened on March 8. Only 40-45% of secondary students showed up. Stacy Tapp, the district’s chief of communications, wasn’t sure how many 11th graders would show up for the ACT test given there was no pre-registration. She was prepared to have no more than 50% of the 11th graders for the March 9 ACT test. Instead, 69.2% took the test. She now estimates that the district will test over 70% of its 11th graders. But this is still far below the 95% the Department of Education requires to reach the DOED mandate.

School districts around the state are using various authorized ACT paper/pencil testing dates: March 9, March 23, April 13 along with their corresponding five-day windows for online computer testing. Given the ability of Racine to get its 11th graders to take the test, it is quite possible that Milwaukee will see a much higher-than-expected turnout for  the test.

School districts that have been opened for all or most of the school year might achieve that 95% standard. Josh Beck, an English teacher at Cudahy High School in a suburb just south of Milwaukee, reports that the 11th graders at his school took the ACT on March 9. “I think we had 96% of the students in attendance that day.”

There is a lot of variation  in how COVID has impacted school communities and their ability to have students take the ACT. Some schools are open, some are in hybrid and others are virtual. The degree they have been opened may indicate what percentage of their students take state mandated tests and how well they do.

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Many states requested waivers from the federal testing requirement this school year. All waivers were rejected, but the DOED did say that states could delay testing to fall 2021. Wisconsin asked for a waiver of the 95% participation requirement but did not ask for an overall waiver.  

Nor did Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction (DPI) consider moving testing dates to early fall. Wisconsin state law requires that testing data be included in the school report cards issued in October. Testing in fall would make the inclusion of testing data into the report cards nearly impossible. Republicans, who wanted to use student testing to get schools to open, were in no mood to change the law requiring the October report card date.

But ACT and DPI had second thoughts. Low participation rates among 11th graders were likely in many districts. Early in March, DPI added an additional testing date of May 5. School districts could now have two paper/pencil dates instead of one. 

Students’ test performance

Before Wisconsin used the ACT as its high school testing standard, it used its own testing system. Some students filled in multiple choices blindly or did not fill out any choices at all. After all, what was the value of these tests for them?

On the other hand, the ACT test was a gatekeeper. If students wanted to go to college, they had to take the ACT or SAT.  High school students took the ACT more seriously than they did with previous tests. 

COVID changed that significantly. Most colleges dropped the test entrance requirement for the last two years, and many colleges are likely not to return to the requirement in the future. Colleges are more likely to rely on other measurements. Unlike previous years, 11th graders might now be less likely to put in their best efforts to do well on the test or may be willing to skip the test altogether.

Beck watched his Cudahy students take the test. “The students in my testing room took it seriously. No one rushed through it or slept or anything like that. Most used all of the time given for each subpart of the test.”

Just how many students take the test seriously might depend on whether they still believe that the ACT is a gatekeeper for getting into college. Says Beck, “Most of our kids feel like this test determines their entire life, and if they do poorly, they cannot do what they’ve dreamed of.”

Cudahy’s ACT scores have been above the state average. Time will tell if Cudahy maintains those scores. If there is any decrease, multiple factors could come into play: the psychological impact of COVID, some disruption in learning and a recognition the test is less important than it used to be.

Stephen Miller, Green Bay Schools’ Director of Assessment, believes that many students in his district are less concerned about the ACT because they plan to attend a technical college where ACT scores have rarely been required. But Miller states that one group of students will still take the ACT very seriously: those students who are applying for scholarships that still require ACT or SAT test scores.

Miller believes some students may hesitate to return  to in-person instruction and taking the test if they have been in virtual instruction for most of the year.

Green Bay returned to full classroom instruction on March 8. “With the desire to have students  return to as much normality as possible, we decided not to use that first testing date of March 9,” Miller says., “Any student on any given day can do better than expected or worse on a test… Kids have good days and bad days… Is one test really reflective of what a student knows?” He concurs that coming back for in-person instruction may be more traumatic for students who have been in a virtual classroom and affect how well they do on the test that day. 

Yet Miller defends doing some testing. “If we don’t do any kind of assessing, you never have any idea of how a student is doing.”

On March 8, about 60% of Green Bay 10th-12th graders returned to in-person instruction. Miller hopes that those numbers will rise and be reflected in the number of test takers on April 13. He says that Green Bay has already decided to utilize the May 5 testing date to pick up additional students. 

To improve or punish schools

The ACT is just one measurement in the state report card for every school and district. Schools and districts are rated through an elaborate numeric point system. 

Academic performance, growth from one year to the next and the achievement gap between students of different races are all taken into account. The report cards also measure absenteeism, dropout rates, and test participation.

This year, the measuring system is clearly broken. Many schools will not have enough students taking the tests to properly measure academic achievement. School attendance numbers will be questionable. Students who are virtual may log on without engaging but will still be considered “present.” Measuring growth from one year to the next will be difficult since no school report cards were issued last year.

A disruption or change in the report card system can cause fluctuations. DPI changed the testing system in the 2015-16 school year, instituting the ACT and other tests in place of Wisconsin’s previous home-grown tests. The year before, DPI published no report cards because Wisconsin was in the process of overhauling the report card system. In the 2015-16 school year, Cudahy and Racine wound up with school report cards scoring lower than Milwaukee. Both rebounded the following year. 

A poor school report card can have dire consequences for school districts. Milwaukee and Racine were threatened with the takeover of some of their schools. Those schools would be handed over to charters, private schools or special masters. 

Only a slight increase in their report cards scores in a subsequent  year kept their systems intact.

Posley is very concerned how this next round of test data will be used.  “I think it is a way of shaming and looking at testing privilege. Privileged communities are going to do well. They have been in session; they have not had a break in service, and when you look at districts that are in poverty, you are going to see the results of those trend lines. Those trend lines are there when it comes to data, based upon socioeconomic status.”

School districts like Cudahy serve a working-class community, which many do not see as  privileged. Yet, from Milwaukee’s perspective, it is. Milwaukee schools have a poverty rate over 82%, twice that of Cudahy. 

Although Beck believes that his students did well on the ACT this year, he questions how ACT scores are used. “Personally, I don’t think it’s fair to use any test scores in the school report card. It always hurts schools with a high number of poor students.” 

Proponents of using students testing and school report cards claim they are just trying to push school districts to do better. But teachers and administrators in those districts believe the real intent is to dismantle them and turn schools over to charter operators and private schools.

Update: In the early morning of Wednesday, March 24, the Milwaukee school board modified the district superintendent’s recommendation on school reopening. Early elementary students’ return would be delayed by two days to April 14. On the high school level, only 12th grade student return. Grade 9-11 students would remain virtual except for students who are failing and need additional instruction.