Hey, Illinois! Where’s the Writing?

In Illinois the 11th grade No Child Left Behind (NCLB) reporting is based on the Prairie State Achievement Examination (PSAE), a standardized test regimen comprised of the ACT college admission test and a bit of weirdness called WorkKeys. Scores on those two tests are crunched together to determine whether Illinois juniors meet, exceed, or fall short of meeting standards in Math, Science, Reading, and—until this year—Writing. Each school’s results are then reported to the community and widely publicized in the media.

As part of the PSAE program, every junior in Illinois is provided with a free ACT test, courtesy of Illinois taxpayers. In the past, this has been a good deal for college-bound Illinois students and their parents because the ACT results can be reported to colleges and save those families the cost of an ACT test.

Each state has leeway in how it decides to fulfill the No Child Left Behind reporting requirements. Those states using the ACT test are, in my opinion, making an expensive mistake. The ACT test is intended to be a college aptitude test. Colleges have traditionally used those scores to predict a student’s likelihood of finding success on their campuses. When that aptitude test is recast as an achievement test, its purpose is perverted into something it was never intended to be. In addition, because so many non-college-bound students are required to take the test in Illinois and a few other states, I wonder about the validity of the norming. When college-bound students are compared to non-college-bound students, the results are likely very different from when college-bound students are compared to other college-bound students.

ACT’s validity has recently been challenged, and I can’t help but wonder if this very issue is causing the ACT to skew in strange ways. So why does ACT allow states like Illinois to misuse its test? Follow the money. ACT is a profit-driven company, and I imagine they have a hard time saying no to the money generated by states that require all juniors, even those not attending college, to take their college admission test. All I can say about this is, when state bureaucracies get in bed with testing companies, they tend to make ugly babies, and that’s what we have in Illinois.

Anyway, in the past, Illinois has provided juniors with the ACT +Writing test. The +Writing version of the ACT is required by many colleges, recommended by other colleges, optional for still others, and not required at all by some colleges. This year Illinois has decided to drop the writing portion of the ACT test as a cost-cutting measure. This is troubling for a couple of reasons.

First, some students will attend colleges that require a score from the +Writing portion of the test. Therefore, those students will automatically need to pay to take the ACT on another occasion in order to provide their colleges with a writing score. (The +Writing portion of the test cannot be taken separately from the ACT, although a student can choose to take the ACT without the +Writing section.) Will students approach their PSAE testing less seriously if they assume going in that they will need to take the ACT again on another occasion? This prospect makes schools nervous because of the potential effect on the NCLB results.

With this in mind, will schools be tempted to tell their juniors that most colleges do not require the +Writing portion in order to motivate students to take the test seriously? I hope this doesn’t happen because it’s not true, and it isn’t sound advice. Juniors rarely know where they will be going to college sixteen months hence, so isn’t their safest ACT strategy an assumption that they will need the +Writing score—and therefore an additional ACT test–unless they are peremptorily ruling out any school requiring that writing score?

Schools should tell their juniors the truth. If a junior is applying to colleges that require or recommend the +Writing score, he will need to take an additional ACT test beyond the PSAE version. It’s still worth it for juniors to approach the PSAE version of the ACT seriously because they submit any ACT score from any testing session along with the +Writing score from any testing session. In other words, students can mix and match ACT and +Writing scores from different testing sessions and submit only their best results.

One final concern: Will schools begin considering writing instruction less of a priority because it is no longer tested and reported? That would be stupid, but we’ve seen it happen before, haven’t we? In Illinois we used to report scores in social studies and fine arts, but those are no longer tested or reported, and we’ve seen their presence diminished in schools’ funding and programming priorities.

Although I’m not a fan of standardized testing in general, I enjoy helping students prepare for the +Writing section of the ACT test. They are motivated to do well, so they take their standardized test writing seriously. We also are able to talk meaningfully about specific rhetorical strategies that tend to produce good scores on the ACT, and those strategies are also useful for other writing situations. (For rock solid advice on how to prepare for the writing sections of standardized tests, take a look at the “Writing for the ACT and SAT” section of our book, Expository Composition: Discovering Your Voice.)

No one needs to tell English teachers that responding to student writing is a labor-intensive activity. Evaluating and providing feedback on student writing takes more time than pretty much anything else in education. When ACT has to pay someone to read all of those +Writing essays, the cost of the test understandably goes up. Dumping the +Writing section of the ACT from the PSAE will save some money, no doubt about it. But what will it cost?

Illinois has now applied for a federal waiver from NCLB reporting. I hope this is the beginning of the end of a law that has done far more harm than good. In the meantime, please don’t let this cost-cutting measure negatively affect the juniors in your school. Advise your juniors to do what will most benefit them in their college admission process, even if it means a potentially negative effect on your school’s PSAE scores and NCLB status. Let’s serve students’ interests over interests based on poor policy.

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2 Responses to Hey, Illinois! Where’s the Writing?

  1. Glenda says:

    Idaho juniors are required to take the SAT beginning this year, even special service students. This is our inagural year, and testing is next Wednesday. This week and next sophomores and freshman have been taking the ISAT language, reading, and math tests. No lab or media center access during the testing window. And our entire schedule is a mess because of the tests. Of course the school mantra has been “test prep” all year.

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  2. Although Idaho is also misusing an aptitude test as an achievement test, at least the SAT does not separate writing from the rest of the test.

    Our school gives sophomores a practice ACT while the juniors are taking the PSAE version of the ACT. This year, because writing is no longer being tested for juniors, the sophomores are also not practicing the writing test. This seems like the first indication that because writing is no longer being tested or reported, we’re not going to emphasize it as much.

    April seems like it’s on the way to becoming National Testing Month in American schools. I wonder what they’re doing this month in Finland.

    As always, Glenda, I appreciate your comments and insights.

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