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ACT: 'We Are a Plan B' for Common Assessments

If you've been following the adventures of the two consortia of states that are designing tests for the common standards, then you've likely heard that ACT Inc. has jumped into the game by announcing a similar suite of assessments. One state, Alabama, has already decided to go that route instead of using the tests being crafted by PARCC and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.

Two of the people overseeing the Iowa testmaker's new set of tests, called Aspire, dropped by EdWeek's offices yesterday, so we asked them where things stood with the project.

Jon Erickson, president of ACT's education division, and Paul J. Weeks, who oversees Aspire's development as ACT's vice president for career and college readiness, weren't ready to offer any information on which states, if any, are seriously considering using Aspire as their year-end tests for accountability.

But they noted that several states—some that are participating in a consortium and some that aren't—have put out solicitations for such tests. The implication was that one or more PARCC or SBAC members could be in play as potential customers lured over to Aspire. We'll get back to you with more on this when there is more to report.

When I asked Erickson to talk about Aspire as a competitor to the two federally funded assessment consortia, he disputed that notion.

"It wasn't a move to take common core down," he said, "that's the furthest thing from the truth. It's a complementary effort."

I asked him what would be wrong with just coming right out and saying Aspire is an alternative to the PARCC and Smarter Balanced tests. After all, I said, some state education chiefs, like Tony Bennett in Florida, have expressed a need for a "Plan B" in case the consortium tests don't take shape as expected.

"We are a Plan B," he said. "States have asked for a Plan B alternative. We are here for the long haul. We're spending money out of our own pockets; We're not dependent on the political winds. It's still a free economy."

And right there you see some of ACT's marketing strategy. They're raising doubt about the consortia's long-term sustainability, which is a concern high on the consortia's own radars, as we've told you. Aspire's timeline, too, is clearly intended to help it get a competitive foothold; it promises its tests for spring 2014, a year ahead of what PARCC and Smarter Balanced are promising. (Look how prominently that timeline is displayed on Aspire's web page, too.)

As for the test itself, Weeks and Erickson said the current projected price is about $20 per student for tests in English/language arts, reading, writing, math, and science in grades 3-8 and 9-10. That's the neighborhood PARCC and SBAC are trying to hover in for their tests, too. Currently, Aspire is conducting small-scale trials on test forms, with 305,000 students involved so far, Weeks said. Studies are also being conducted to establish a cutoff score that would align to ACT's college readiness benchmarks, and to ensure test results are equally valid on the online and the paper-and-pencil versions of the test.

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