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Stop the Churn

Another day, another seismic shift in Michigan education.

Educators returned from their holiday break to learn, at 10:22 a.m. on a Wednesday, that Michigan had switched its college entrance exam from the ACT to the SAT. Just a handful of people were involved in the decision, and very few knew it was even under consideration.

The ACT had been a mandated test for all 11th graders since 2007 but was the dominant assessment in Michigan and all of the Midwest for many years before that.

For many, switching from the ACT to the SAT as the college-ready assessment in the Michigan Merit Exam is no big deal. So what? There are two college entrance exams. About half the country uses one and about half uses the other. We used one for a while and now we’re switching to the other. It still measures student knowledge, it takes about the same amount of time, many students take both and so do most colleges.

No big deal, right? Well, imagine waking up tomorrow and reading the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (which sets weights and measures for Michigan) ruled we would now use the metric system. No more inches, feet, yards and miles. No more gallons at the gas pump or quarts of milk in the attached convenience store.

Hey, so what? Both systems measure distance and weight, both are taught in our schools, and many more people use the metric system across the globe.

But wait, you say. We’re heavily invested in the United States customary system of units. I own a business, and all of our tools are the current system. All of our customers use the current system. All of our highway signage and mile markers are in, well, miles! All of my recipes are in teaspoons, tablespoons, ounces, cups, quarts and gallons. I don’t know what a milliliter is!

That’s the way the educators in your local schools felt, as did admissions officers in colleges. Blind-sided. Shocked. Confused. Almost like the Lions felt in their playoff game against Dallas when the officials picked up a 4th quarter pass interference flag after they’d called the penalty and marked off the yardage.

So, is the switch from the ACT to the SAT a big deal? In the long run, probably not, as long as we stick with it. The College Board, which produces the test, is redesigning it to better match Michigan (and Common Core) standards. They’re providing free test prep opportunities for students statewide, something schools and/or parents had to provide on their own dime. And they’re doing it at just about 60 percent of the cost proposed by ACT.

The big deal is the churn. We must stop the churn..

All schools, all teachers and all students were focused on the ACT. Now they’re not. Just as all districts for the last several years were focused on the new Michigan standards and the new Smarter Balanced Assessment.

Except now they’re not, because the legislature said no to Smarter Balanced. Instead, students this year will take the M-Step, a test cobbled together by MDE while another test is selected. The MEAP can’t test the new standards.

Again, what’s the big deal? Surprisingly enough, students don’t do very well when they’re not taught what is being tested. Teachers don’t always know what will actually be tested until they’ve been through a couple of test cycles. So, even though they’re teaching the material, they don’t know how the questions will be worded, or what the test- makers think are the most important things for students to know.

Ever hear of test anxiety? Ever worry about a test yourself?

Every teacher and every student in the state are guaranteed to have test anxiety this year and next, as this year they’ll do a test they’ve never seen, which will be repeated next year with the M-Step replacement and the SAT.

If you look across the nation where schools are doing well, you’ll find consistency.

In Massachusetts, long the United States’ top performing state, lawmakers instituted a series of reforms in the mid-1990s and stuck with them. Now, their students are blowing the top out of the state tests, the national (NAEP) tests and are performing on a par with the top international countries. States like Tennessee and Florida followed suit and are making great gains after years lagging behind.

In Michigan, the only constant since 2008 was the ACT. Everything else had changed. The standards, the tests, the number of questions students needed to answer correctly to be considered proficient,everything.

What educators ask of our policy makers is this. Stop the churn so children can learn.

If the SAT is the test, fine. Keep it. Replace the MEAP/M-Step with something equally reputable and keep it. Don’t change. Give us the opportunity to line up what we teach and what students learn with the tests deployed to measure teacher and student success. Keep it in place longer than the term limits we set for legislators, and get ready for better results. Please!

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Ron Koehler
Ron Koehler
Ron Koehler is the Kent ISD Superintendent and offers his commentary on issues in education.


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