ACT's College Readiness StandardsView Best in Class
ACT administers a series of academic-achievement tests to assess student readiness for college-level work. The organization offers three secondary-level science assessments: EXPLORE at grades eight to nine, PLAN at grade ten, and the capstone ACT Test at grade twelve. The latter of the three is immediately relevant to college readiness and is the subject of this review.
The tests that concern us are designed to measure science-relevant cognitive skillsâ€”those that ACTâ€™s empirical research has shown to be required for success in beginning college coursework.
The ACT Test is based upon a set of â€œcollege-readiness standards,â€ which are created by the organization itself. The organization claims that they identify the cognitive skills that comprise scientific reasoning, rather than content knowledgeâ€”or what is usually called science content (that is, observations, facts, hypotheses, theories, and laws). In fact, the ACT assessment guide describes the science test as emphasizing â€œâ€¦scientific reasoning skills over recall of scientific content, skill in mathematics, or reading abilityâ€ (emphasis added).
Nevertheless, despite the emphasis on cognitive skills, the ACTâ€™s â€œCollege Readiness Standardsâ€ do make use of a list of general content â€œTopicsâ€ (as the documents call them) in life science, physical science, and earth and space scienceâ€”the now-traditional triad of K-12 science content. The ACT organization evidently assumes that a twelfth-grade test-taker has had classroom instruction in biology, physics, chemistry, and earth and space science. In any test year, each subject may account for 13 to 33 percent of the forty questions on the ACT Test.
Therefore, the implied science content standards, which we undertake to evaluate, are the (large!) set of possible pairings of items in ACTâ€™s cognitive skills list (its College Readiness Standards) with the items of content from the three â€œTopicsâ€ lists.
Organization of the Standards
For the purposes of this review, we evaluated the ACT College Readiness Standards. These standards are expressed in two tables. The first outlines the skills the ACT assesses. These skills are divided first into three strands: Interpretation of Data; Scientific Investigation; and Evaluation of Models, Inferences, and Experimental Results. They are then divided into score ranges, which are meant to â€œdescribe what students who score in various score rangesâ€¦are likely to know and be able to do.â€ In short, each cognitive standard is associated with a narrow range of scaled scores on the forty-item ACT science test. A student score within a specific range presumably predicts a particular level of college readinessâ€”or lack of itâ€”based upon prior experience of ACT testing and empirical research.
For example, a score of at least twenty-four is the benchmark for success in college-level science, specified as first-year biology in the ACT Domain Document. Presumably this holds for first-year college courses in the other sciences as well, but that is not specified.
The second table outlines the science â€œTopicsâ€ assessed by the ACT. These Topics are divided among three strands: life science/biology; physical science/chemistry and physics; and earth and space science.
Finally, the ACT provides sample assessment items. Taken together, the skills, the â€œTopics,â€ and the sample assessment items provide a full account of ACTâ€™s competent science testing, although, as we conclude below, they cannot function as a practical set of K-12 science standards.
Content and Rigor
The ACT science content standardsâ€”the fifteen â€œTopicsâ€ for each of the three main divisions of scienceâ€”are neither explicit nor detailed. They merely offer the names of certain major sub-disciplines and specialty areas of biological, physical, and earth and space sciences. Though by no means irrelevant or frivolous, they are nevertheless not very useful as content standards.
Take, for example, this entry:
Photosynthesisâ€”the chain of elementary processes by which sunlight photons are trapped in cells of green plants and microorganisms and the energy used for synthesis of carbohydrates.
Photosynthesis is, however, also a name of biochemical, atomic- and molecular-level processes of great complexity. Thus, while it does represent important subject matter, the word photosynthesis in the ACT Topics list covers a vast body of science; by itself, it is non-specific. It does not signal that knowledge of photosynthesis which K-12 students can and should be expected to have.
Similarly, â€œgravitation,â€ under physics, can imply anything from a Kindergarten treatment of Newton and the apple to a post-baccalaureate, theoretical-physical treatment of quantum mechanicsâ€”as reconciled (or not) with general relativity. The same can be said of most of the entries in this list. They offer little in the way of useful guidance for curriculum planners or teachersâ€”the primary purpose of a standards document.
Only by reviewing these Topics together with sample ACT test questions can we obtain evidence sufficient for an appraisal of these documents as potential science-achievement standards. Many of the (sample) test items are interesting and even challenging, and they do refer to those broad â€œTopicsâ€â€”that is, to some of the contentâ€”students are supposed to have encountered in science courses. Taken together, therefore, the Topics, the College Readiness Standards, and the Released Assessment Items represent what ACT thinks the college-ready student should know and be able to do. But of course the available assessment items are not distributed comprehensively across the full range of important content for K-12 science. The indicated Topics, and therefore even the three-way combination (of Topics, College Readiness Standards, and Released Assessment Items) are short on content.
By contrast, treatment of the cognitive (elsewhere referred to as â€œscience processâ€) skills is very specificâ€”as set forth in the College Readiness Standards. But these are not statements of content. They are, instead, statements about skills in one of three cognitive tasks (explained further below), which are generally required in scientific (and other) discourse.
These skills are identified as Understanding, Analysis, and Generalization. For testing, however, ACTâ€™s College Readiness Standards translate those three general abilities into new and different termsâ€”in fact into the three headings: â€œInterpretation of Data,â€ â€œScientific Investigation,â€ and â€œEvaluation of Models, Inferences, and Experimental Results.â€ These headings stand for the three kinds of questions written for the ACT test, each designed as to probe the (scientific) cognitive-achievement level of the test-taker.
ACT insists that these tests assess achievement, not aptitude. But this is not unqualifiedly convincing. The artfully designed (sample) questions can be answered correctly only after careful, efficient reading and comprehensionâ€”and even then, only with the help of logic, since among the alternative answers offered some are cleverly misleading. Thus a conviction that â€œaptitudeâ€ plays no part in ACT test performance must be in some measure unrealistic.
Thus, combining the College Readiness Standards, the Topics, and the sample test questions, as already noted, we can approximate a set of performance expectations for K-12 science. But ACT does not, really, propose â€œcontentâ€ for K-12 science; its content is a taut prÃ©cis of surveys of subject matter already being taught in schools and colleges. Instead it uses the resulting list of science topics for context, within which questions can be framed that test cognitive abilities in the science domain, not content mastery. Really useful science standards must indicate, at minimum, what content is expected to be mastered in the progress from Kindergarten to twelfth grade.
Content and Rigor Conclusion
The Topics list is too broad and general to serve as practical K-12 content standards. A high score on the ACT test might indeed suggest mastery of school science content, some of it â€œrigorous.â€ But sample test questions, even the interesting ones, do not a set of science standards make. A school or teacher seeking to derive curricular or instructional standards from the ACT framework wonâ€™t find enough here on which to constructâ€”for exampleâ€”a robust secondary-school science program. But we hasten to repeat that the presentation of such standards is not the purpose of the ACT documentation. On our scoring metric, nevertheless, the appropriate assignment is a four out of seven for content and rigor (See Appendix A: Methods, Criteria, and Grading Metric; State of State Science Standards 2012.)
Clarity and Specificity
As a testing regimeâ€”an assessment instrument that can predict readiness for introductory college scienceâ€”the ACT Test functions admirably. The test questions are conscientiously written. For professional readers (including classroom teachers), ACT is clear about its purposes, its sources, and the relationships among the various elements of the testing system, including the research that underlies decision-making about test items.
The College Readiness Standards, set out in tabular form and finely scored as levels of achievement on the test, are â€œspecificâ€ enough but unclear. They emerge from ACTâ€™s labored distinctions among cognitive competences that even a sympathetic reader might question. For example, the reframing of the concepts Understanding, Analysis, and Generalization, restated as Interpretation of Data, Scientific Investigation, and Evaluation of Models, Inferences, and Experimental Results lacks some clarity.
Finally, the Topics list is straightforward and specific enough to serve as the table of contents for a textbook or the unit list for a college course. But its entries are insufficiently detailed for serious use in curricula and lesson planning. As shown above, there is no indication (as regards, for example, â€œphotosynthesisâ€) of what, specifically, is to be learned when. On clarity and specificity, then, the score cannot be better than a two out of three. (See Appendix A: Methods, Criteria, and Grading Metric; State of State Science Standards 2012.)
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