Not satisfied with New Jersey's state tests, the new superintendent of Newark schools will turn to a national college entrance test to help her gauge whether high school students are meeting college and career needs.
Superintendent Cami Anderson said she would start testing students this year on the ACT, a college entrance exam comparable to the SAT, which is popular in the South and Midwest. The testing would start in 8th grade with some of ACT's companion exams for the younger grades.
The move is one of Anderson's most sweeping yet in trying to improve the high schools in New Jersey's largest and arguably most troubled district, where only about half of incoming 9th grade students graduate four years later.
The new testing would be on top of the state's standardized exams, Anderson said. These are given in the 8th grade and then again in the 11th grade, with the High School Proficiency Assessment, which is required for graduation.
The Christie administration itself has said the HSPA is not rigorous enough and should be replaced, and Anderson said yesterday that in discussions with her principals, there was agreement that the HSPA wasn't any good in measuring students over time either.
"They, like many principals, felt what we currently have is inadequate," Anderson said in an interview. "The HSPA is not a great test, and we only give it once. So with a ninth grader, the next indicator we have on them right now is when they graduate – or not – after taking the HSPA."
States are increasingly moving to the ACT and similar tests as part of their high school assessments, with more than 20 states using the ACT in one form or another as a statewide test or instructional program. New Jersey's acting education commissioner Chris Cerf has mentioned ACT as a possible statewide exam here, too. The state's contract for HSPA runs out this year.
The state is also moving toward a separate nationally developed test aimed to match the Common Core State Standards, but that is not expected to be ready until 2014.
But the use of the ACT hasn't been without criticism. While gaining popularity as a more rounded exam than the SAT, critics have said it still leads to a narrowing of curriculum. The National Council of Teachers of English issued a report in 2005 that was particularly critical of its writing section as an unreliable measure of ability.
"The ACT was not designed to assess curricula or NJ core standards," said Stan Karp, a program director with the Education Law Center and frequent critic of the state's testing systems. "It's a four and a half hour commercial test designed to predict college performance. What will four years of such testing for all students cost? What evidence is there that this will improve instruction?"
"Test-driven reform has been a colossal failure," he said. "We should be investing in the ability of teachers and school leaders to do other forms of assessment not more standardized multiple choice tests."
Anderson maintained that the ACT overall had the backing of research as a strong predictor of college success, and it would serve as a powerful motivator for students aiming for college.
She also said its individualized reports of student results are detailed and constructive, and most of all, they will allow the district to see if and how students are progressing year to year. "You'll be able to see the gains and the growth," she said.
Whether it means extra testing in at least 8th and 11th grades, Anderson said it will be worth the comparison with existing exams. "If we handle them right, I think students and their families will see the value added," she said.