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Officials ponder what test is best?

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

SIKESTON -- When it comes to determining what public high school students have learned, should it be measured by the MAP test or the ACT?

That's the question state education officials are currently pondering. And in the coming weeks, they hope to gain a little more insight from parents, teachers and counselors during town hall meetings scheduled at various locations throughout the state.

Last month in Jefferson City, an advisory committee presented the State Board of Education with a plan to replace the state's current standardized tests for public high school students with a nationally recognized college-entry exam, such as the ACT or SAT. The committee has spent the past year evaluating the state's current high school testing program.

"We want to get out the information as to why the committee made the recommendations and gather input from the public for the state board to consider," said Stan Johnson, assistant commissioner of the Division of School Improvement for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Throughout April, the DESE will conduct seven public meetings.

Southeast Missouri's town hall meeting is from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. April 19 at Tinnin Fine Arts Center on the campus of Three Rivers Community College in Poplar Bluff.

Under the proposal, beginning in the spring of 2008, the state would pay for all 11th graders in public schools to take a standardized college-entry exam, such as the ACT or SAT. It would include a writing test.

The new exam would replace the current MAP tests administered in grades 10 and 11. However, the MAP science test would be retained, because the existing college- entry exams do not adequately cover the state's science standards, according to DESE. The MAP science test also would be given in grade 11.

Jerry Brehmer, counselor at Scott County Central High School, said he thinks the proposal has some merit.

"I know one of the arguments is a lot of times kids do not take the MAP seriously and do not try because they think it doesn't have an effect on them personally," Brehmer said. "The ACT is more likely to make them try harder because it is a college entrance exam and can be used for that purpose." But of course not every student will go to college after graduation, Brehmer pointed out. He estimated 75 percent of Scott Central graduates end up taking the ACT.

About 70 percent of Missouri high school graduates take the ACT exam on a voluntary basis each year. Illinois, Colorado and Michigan now require the ACT exam for all public school students. Other states also are considering the adoption of a mandatory college-entry exam as the core of their high school testing programs.

Sikeston Senior High School counselor John Berry said he's cautiously optimistic about the proposal.

"I'd like to wait and see what will happen. "The big thing I see is that everybody in the state will be taking the ACT, and I wonder what it will do to the state average or to the national average."

On the positive side, Berry said he thinks this might be something to give students a chance to score better on the ACT.

Johnson said statewide there is a commonality among questions about the proposal. One of the most asked questions is if the state would change the instructional focus at the high school level if the MAP was replaced by the ACT. But Johnson said research conducted shows the ACT is very well-aligned with the state's grade level expectations.

Results from the new test would provide diagnostic and instructional information for students and teachers as well as the data needed to satisfy state and federal accountability requirements.

Department of Education officials said no decisions have been made about the plan, and they expect vigorous discussion of the testing proposals.

Johnson, who will conduct the town hall meetings, said a presentation detailing why the recommendation was made will be given and questions from participants will try to be answered during the meetings. Feedback will be tabulated and some sort of conclusion will be reached probably in May, he said.

"This is about good dialogue and good discussion that we're having and what assessment at the high school do we need to have to improve instruction," Johnson said.

Both Brehmer and Berry think parental feedback at the town hall meeting would be beneficial.

"They have more to say about child's education than anybody," Brehmer said. The more involved a parent is, the better the student will perform, Berry said. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education estimates it would cost about $1.5 million more to adopt a college-entry exam for all students, compared to what the state now spends on high school MAP tests.

"Whatever instrument we use, we've got to keep in mind there are always those students, for whatever reason, who freeze up or just flat out don't test well.

Testing is just one means of measuring a student's achievement, Berry said. The Sikeston counselor added: "They can have a great work ethic and be successful in the classroom, and we cannot forget that element as well."