ACT’s Aspire Replaces ACT’s PLAN and EXPLORE and Beyond

This spring the ACT administered for the last time EXPLORE (for 8th and 9th grade assessments) and PLAN (ACT’s version of PSAT for the 10th grade); in their stead the ACT launched Aspire, its brand new entry into the world of core curriculum assessment tests.

Aspire is a suite of tests for assessing Common Core performance across English, math, reading, science, and writing, addressing students from 3rd grade through to junior year. An example of the Aspire English assessments can be found at click here.  Each subject will have three types of assessments: summative, given at the end of the year as a final; formative, periodic assessments such as quizzes; and, interim, end-of-semester exams to determine performance. Aspire already launched the summative assessment in April; the interim and formative assessments will arrive this fall. 

Getting Aspire produced, tested, and marketed is an enormous undertaking. Consequently, the ACT elected to undertake this project as a joint venture LLC with Pearson Publishing, the behemoth British publisher of the Economist, with extensive reach into educational markets across the United States. Incidentally, Pearson has battled head-to-head with ETS (a close partner of the College Board) and the College Board. In 2006 the GMAT council moved the development and administration of the GMAT from ETS to Pearson. Pearson also launched its own ESL assessment to compete with the College Board’s TOEFL in the highly coveted international assessment world worth hundreds of millions of dollars.  Partnered, the ACT and Pearson represent as daunting a duo as the College Board has or probably ever will encounter.

Yet, while the SAT vies with the ACT to become the ‘indispensable’ common core assessment admissions tool, ACT’s Aspire seeks to secure its position in the third grade. As the Denver Post noted, “ACT’s Aspire program is specifically scaffolded to prepare students for the ACT, even as the ACT evolves to meet changing needs and expectations of colleges and careers.” Beyond this vision, the ACT is already administered to every high school student in 12 states, including Colorado and Illinois, and in the college admissions testing market holds a 54% share (and rising).   The common core assessment market, though, is by no means wide open. First off, most states have their own tests for measuring performance against the core.

Then there are two core-aligned assessment consortiium: PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers—a 7 state consortia) and SBAC (SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium—comprised of 31 states).  California is currently part of the SBAC. If a student in your home took assessments for the common core this spring, it was from Smarter Balanced, was over English proficiency and math, and probablylasted 7-8.5 hours stretched across several days. 

It might have crossed many minds that couldn’t assessments be done more quickly? Aspire accommodates by taking 3 hours for summative assessments across English, reading writing and math, and an additional 55 minutes should science be added.

The advantages Aspire brings to the test taking core-curriculum schools, besides more subjects and shorter testing time, are lower costs (and the costs for the consortia could rise if members drop out: Florida might withdraw from PARCC, and Kansas, Missouri, Michigan, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Wisconsin might withdraw from SBAC), score reporting based on ACT College Readiness Standards, and aligned to Common Core State Standards—with three digit scoring to give more granular assessments for remediation and placement purposes. Aspire test can be taken on-line or on paper.

For accountability consistency, the federal government requires that each state has a single assessment across all its students, except for the 1% special education population. The state of Alabama has committed to making Aspire its assessment of choice. Regardless of how all these common core assessments work themselves out, kudos to Aspire and the ACT for attempting to streamline, simplify, and offer a smarter, more balanced, core curriculum assessment suite of tests.