Uniting the Common Core, SAT and ACT:

Empowering student success in high school and beyond

04/01/2012
Common Core
Scott Farber

There are those among us who hate standardized testing and those who think it is essential. There are teachers who embrace curriculum standards and those who cringe when they hear the words. Regardless of your perspective, we all know the correlation between education and job security, earning power, life expectancy, and incarceration rates — indeed every major statistical benchmark we value. The mission is clear: we must dedicate ourselves to providing our students the opportunity to succeed beyond high school. image

As we coalesce around national standards and encourage our students to pursue post-secondary education, there exists a concrete curriculum solution which can move the performance needle in both categories by utilizing the concepts and material tested by the SAT and ACT while fulfilling the anchor standards of the Common Core (CC) beginning in the 9th grade.

The Common Core

By the end of 2011, 45 states plus the District of Columbia had voluntarily signed up to align their academic standards with the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI). This overwhelming support is evidence of a collective will to equip our students with benchmark skills they will need after high school, whether in college or the workplace. The standards outline expectations for student proficiency in Reading, English and Math and taken together have broad applicability across multiple disciplines of study. Drawing on the insights of teachers, administrators, educational researchers, and institutions, the CCSSI is very much a collaborative effort with the aim of empowering educators to develop flexible best practices while sharing a common goal.

One of the central tenets of the CCSSI is that no set curriculum will be mandated for the classroom. Teachers and schools are tasked with the job of meeting the standards, and are free to do so in a classroom and lesson context of their choosing. However, this is a double-edged sword as many people are unsure exactly of how to achieve these goals. Fortunately there is a solution which can leverage existing content to not only meet CC standards but also to provide students with the skills to improve performance on the SAT, ACT and other college entrance exams.

These exams understandably track very closely with the anchor standards outlined by the CCSI for English Language Arts and Mathematics, and according to both test makers their exams align with approximately 75 percent of the CC standards. For the remaining 25 percent it is not difficult to extrapolate assignments from existing material and I continually provide such guidance to my own staff, as well as school and nonprofit partners.

Why do SAT and ACT scores matter?

Higher scores on these tests will increase the range of college admission options for students, increase their qualifications for winning merit-based financial aid, and allow some to place out of remedial classes once they enroll.

Every component of the ACT and the SAT is aligned in whole or in part with the Common Core. Unfortunately, the importance of this fact is lost on many who instinctively recoil from the whole idea of standardized testing. For many students, parents and educators these tests have taken on an almost mythic and frightening significance; yet this doesn’t have to be the case. At the outset, it is important to remember that these exams do not necessarily test how much a student knows; they test how well a student can apply what he or she knows. The concepts tested are undeniably the same ones we expect students to master while in high school, and the research published by both the College Board (maker of the SAT) and ACT, Inc. (maker of the ACT) provide ample evidence for this conclusion.

Some might question whether these exams are accurate predictors of college success or debate how exactly scores should be used in the college admissions process, yet these exams continue to play a substantial role in academic life and it is incumbent upon us to provide our students with the tools they need to succeed.

In a 2009 study, The National Association of College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) highlighted that SAT score increases as small as 10 points can “significantly improve a student’s likelihood of admission.” Moreover, as merit-based financial aid and scholarship funds are frequently tied to performance on these exams, schools who deny students the opportunity to benefit from test preparation do so to the detriment of their student body’s potential ability to pay for college even after being accepted.

What can schools do?

In order to improve scores, high school administrators, counselors and teachers must cooperatively develop concrete plans that address critical skill sets beginning in ninth grade with an eye towards minimizing costs for students. Private courses, which can cost upwards of $1000, continue to be the most popular way for students to prepare for SAT and ACT exams, but these programs typically last only a few weeks — hardly enough time for students to prepare for tests like these. Individual tutoring over longer periods can cost thousands more and for the vast majority of students and families this financial burden is simply beyond their means. The truth is, however, by bringing SAT/ACT preparation inside the school day and informing curriculum in ninth through 11th grades, institutions can provide valuable, high-impact educational programming at minimal cost. Professional development programs that offer insight into these exams within the context of the Common Core will best leverage scant education dollars to achieve the most meaningful results.

The CC English language arts components set standards for vocabulary, reading comprehension, writing and grammar — all core elements of the Critical Reading and Writing sections of the SAT, and the English and Reading tests of the ACT. Getting students to study vocabulary earlier and more actively is essential, and a move by schools towards informational, non-fiction reading assignments align both with the CC and standardized tests. Writing assignments that incorporate evidence-based arguments are just as appropriate for the classroom as they are for the SAT/ACT and rules for standard written English, whether tested in multiple-choice format or in some other way, are essential for student success.

High school math courses are frequently segmented into discrete topics, such as Geometry or Algebra. Utilizing CC standards and philosophies like “math modeling” allow students to develop competencies that go beyond memorization and formulas, ultimately reflecting the integrated nature of many SAT/ACT math problems. In truth, such skills are far more valuable for students as life seldom delivers a single concept problem or provides advanced warning for what may come tomorrow. Instead we need to equip students with the capacity to solve fluid problems which may draw from a range of skills.

Integration of SAT/ACT content and CC standards can inspire interdisciplinary assignments drawing on a range of skills, while allowing teachers a tremendous degree of latitude and creativity. For example, both tests offer reading passages examining the philosophies of the founding fathers, which can then spur students to analyze primary source documents such as the Federalist Papers. Beyond the reading comprehension and vocabulary standards inherent in such an assignment, historical perspectives and mathematical modeling relating to population demographics and electoral realities allow for incorporation of additional problem solving exercises.

The Big Picture

Throughout the high school experience, we need to be keenly aware that while the SAT and ACT play a significant role in the college application process, they cannot become our sole focus. The CC standards are a helpful reminder that these tests reflect what we expect from our students, even if we take issue with their format, emphasis or fairness.

Many of the schools and community based organizations my company partners with are passionate about the urgent need to address the growing opportunity divide in this country. These groups aim to supplement the instruction delivered during the school day; sadly, however, when it comes to connecting students with a college future, there is a gaping rift between those who have access to the best resources and information and those who do not.

By allowing this to continue, too many of our schools are failing to deliver on a fundamental promise to our nation’s youth. We have all been taught from a young age that education and hard work are the cornerstones of a successful future, but if we do not guarantee students equal access to educational opportunities beyond high school then we are simply perpetuating a system of unsustainable inequalities. With the adoption of Common Core standards and a focus on the realities of standardized testing, schools are in the unique position of being able to improve student outcomes without reinventing the wheel or breaking the bank.

Scott Farber is the President and Founder of A-List Education, a company providing a range of education services to students, parents, schools and nonprofit institutions. For more information, visit www.alisteducation.com.
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