Michigan principals’ group wary of switch to SAT

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Michigan’s high school juniors will be required to take the SAT college assessment exam instead of the ACT next spring, prompting concern from some educators about whether schools — and students — will be ready for the switch.

The Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals said in a statement Wednesday it’s worried that the move announced by the state Department of Education raises more questions than it answers. Michigan has used the ACT as its free college assessment exam since 2007.

“What will happen to the considerable amounts of time and funding that schools have invested in preparing students for a test that will soon no longer be administered to every high school junior?” asked Wendy Zdeb-Roper, the group’s executive director.

Zdeb-Roper said in a statement the move is even more challenging because the SAT’s New York-based administrator, the College Board, announced a significant retooling of the test beginning in 2016 and little information about it is available.

“Colleges and universities have not even seen the test yet and will need to re-norm their acceptance standards, since it will include a new scoring scale,” she said.

“What will this shift mean for our ability to track student performance over time? Will we lose the continuity of data that we have had since the ACT was implemented? We also hope that this decision by the (state) does not jeopardize our students’ ability to vie for admissions at Michigan’s colleges and universities.”

State officials say the move will save money and that schools will be given the resources to adapt to the change. The College Board won a three-year contract worth $17.1 million to administer the test in Michigan.

The contract switch means juniors will take the SAT for free in Michigan. They can still take the ACT at their own expense just as in previous years they could pay for the SAT, state officials say. Colleges in Michigan accept either exam for entry. The basic ACT costs $38; with the writing portion, $54.50. The SAT costs $52.50.

“Their bid came in over $15 million less than the ACT over the course of the three years,” department spokesman Martin Ackley said. “They won the contract because it was a combination of a better bid, and it is far less expensive, which is a great savings to Michigan taxpayers.”

Ackley said Michigan law requires high school students to take a college entrance exam and a work skills assessment. ACT has been administering the exam in Michigan since 2007 as part of the Michigan Merit Examination. ACT Inc. will continue to provide its WorkKeys, a job skills readiness assessment for all high school students under a three-year, $12.2 million contract.

“State law cannot identify a particular vendor, which is why these go out for competitive bid,” he said.

Cyndie Schmeiser, the College Board’s chief of assessment, said the College Board is committed to helping Michigan schools “ensure a seamless transition that will allow students, parents, and educators across the state to take advantage of the opportunities our redesigned assessment has to offer.”

“The redesigned SAT is focused on the few durable things that evidence shows matter most for college and career success, and reflects what Michigan students are already learning in their classrooms,” Schmeiser said.

Personalized practice tests will be available to all students, she said. She noted the SAT, which is accepted at all Michigan universities, is a familiar exam to many in the state.

Steven McGhee, principal at Central Collegiate Academy in Detroit — formerly Central High School — said students’ success on the test will depend on “many factors, including the quality of instruction, testing strategies, whether it’s aligned with state benchmarks and how students study at home.”

“In another 10 years, it will be changed again so they’ll need to be prepared,” McGhee said. “The biggest thing is to build testing stamina, meaning students must read regularly and write regularly to do well on the test.”

Jim, Cotter, Michigan State University’s director of admissions, said he expects the impact on the admission review process will be minimal. MSU allows students to use either the SAT or ACT to meet its standardized testing requirement, he said.

Cotter said the university looks at students holistically, and views their high school performance over a period of four years.

“Personal statements, letters of recommendations, co-curricular activities and test scores are additional factors in the review process,” he said. “However, the high school record is of primary focus.”

Not all four-year accredited colleges and universities require standardizing testing for admission. According to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing in Boston, Michigan is one of fewer than 20 states that requires testing for college entrance.

“The ACT is neither better or worse (than the SAT) — it’s just different,” said the center’s spokesman, Robert Schaeffer. “Both are poor predictors of college performance.” He said high school grades are a better predictor of college success.

LaJoyce Brown, interim senior director of undergraduate admissions and orientation at Wayne State University, said the switch will require some adjustments for students and universities. Wayne State hosts annual workshops to educate high school counselors, teachers and administrators about the ACT.

“This will be a big transition for most students in the state of Michigan; so much effort has gone into ACT prep,” Brown said. “However, I am pleased to know that the College Board will assist with this transition by providing free test prep materials for students and professional development for post-secondary enrollment professionals on using the data from the redesigned SAT that will launch in 2016.”

She said Wayne State already accepts SAT scores for admissions and merit scholarship purposes, for students who submit them. “This will definitely be a big year in education for the state of Michigan,” she said.

Ackley said both teachers and students should be prepared for the transition by spring 2016.

“Part of the SAT bid proposal was to provide over the next year online practice tests to prepare students, as well as a lot of professional development for teachers,” Ackley said.

The ACT has up to five components: English, mathematics, reading, science and an optional writing test.

The SAT is undergoing a sweeping revision — the first since 2005 — that aims for more real-world applications and analysis from students. Changes include eliminating obscure vocabulary words, focusing on math that “matters most,” limiting the use of calculators and returning to a 1,600-point scale.

Debra Bulock, who has a junior and a sophomore at Denby High School, an EAA school in Detroit, said she didn’t understand why the state needed to switch until she realized it was saving money. But she has some concerns about the impact.

“My son did fine on his ACT test in the 10th grade, so I’m not too worried about him switching over to the SAT,” said Bulock. “But my daughter, who is the sophomore, is struggling, and I don’t know much about the SAT, but from what I understand, it’s a harder test. So I am a bit concerned about that.”

Keith Johnson, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, called the switch “really unfortunate.”

“The state is trying to meddle too much in the affairs of academics,” he said. “Why are they going to attempt to mandate one test over another? Some students like the ACT over the SAT and vice versa. ... Why make it one test over the other when colleges readily accept both tests?”

The contracts still need final approve from the State Administrative Board.


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Associated Press contributed.