By Superintendent Dr. Jeffrey Schatz
Over the past four years, the status of the mandated North Dakota State Assessment (NDSA) has been evolving and changing with the transition from the former “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) law to the newly reauthorized “Every Student Succeeds Act” (ESSA). This bipartisan measure reauthorizes the 50-year-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the nation’s national education law. One of the provisions in the new law provides states the opportunity to use a nationally recognized assessment as the official state assessment for high school students.
This past year, the Fargo Public Schools Teaching & Learning Department, working with the high school principals, evaluated the possibility of using the long-standing ACT assessment as a replacement for the NDSA for high school students. A decision was made to use the ACT assessment. As the District was moving forward and planning to use the ACT assessment, word came from the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction (NDDPI) that the application submitted to the US Department of Education had been denied. Subsequently, NDDPI State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler asked for reconsideration, and after several weeks of advocating on behalf of the school districts and citizens in North Dakota, the original denial was reversed, opening the door for schools in North Dakota to use the ACT Assessment. The Fargo Public Schools will move forward and use the ACT assessment this year for students in Grade 11.
I thought it would be important to let you know that the work done by NDDPI assures that school districts in North Dakota can maintain local control and make decisions about what is best for their students. We believe that the ACT assessment will be a better measurement of student performance. The NDSA has been an inconsistent assessment changing over the past three years and experienced initial implementation failure, timely result reports, and now changes with the new ESSA law. Comparative data from these assessments have been virtually impossible and does not reflect the true overall performance of student achievement. We believe the ACT assessment will over time provide for the consistency needed to truly evaluate overall student performance.
I applaud the efforts made by State Superintendent Baesler to overturn the original decision made to deny North Dakota the use of the ACT Assessment. The following letter from the NDDPI provides greater detail regarding this issue.
BISMARCK, N.D., March 7, 2018 – State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler said Monday that 17 North Dakota school districts have been cleared to use the ACT exam in place of a required state math and English achievement test for high school students. The districts had asked for approval to make the switch.
Some North Dakota students will take one less standardized test in high school as a result of the change, Baesler said. Many parents and teachers have expressed concern about the frequency of school testing.
The change means students in the 17 districts will no longer have to take the North Dakota State Assessment in high school. Instead, they will take the ACT in the 11th grade. Both the State Assessment and the ACT measure a student’s proficiency in math and English.
Baesler said students are more likely to give their best effort on the ACT, because they generally regard it as more important than the state assessment. The ACT is a widely used college entrance exam, and North Dakota students must earn a composite ACT score of 24 or greater to qualify for up to $6,000 in state college scholarship aid.
North Dakota is the first state in the nation to obtain permission to use the ACT, instead of a separate state test, as a locally selected measurement of student math and English proficiency, Baesler said.
“Any time we can take fewer tests in high school, that means our students are spending more time learning in our classrooms, rather than being tested,” Baesler said.
Seventeen North Dakota school districts, including six of its seven largest districts, intend to use the ACT test to measure the math and English proficiency of their 11th graders, instead of giving the separate North Dakota State Assessment.
The 17 districts have 3,735 students in the 11th grade, or 50 percent of the 7,533 high school juniors in the state. The group includes North Dakota’s four largest districts – Bismarck, Fargo, West Fargo and Grand Forks – as well as Williston (6th), Mandan (7th) and Wahpeton (13th).
Other districts planning to use the ACT this spring are Beulah, Dakota Prairie (based in Petersburg, about 40 miles east of Devils Lake), Fordville-Lankin, Goodrich, Harvey, Larimore, Lidgerwood, Sargent Central, White Shield and Zeeland.
State and federal law require schools to administer periodic tests to measure student proficiency in math, English, and science. North Dakota law also requires 11th graders to take the ACT. As a result, North Dakota high school students have been taking both the ACT and the North Dakota State Assessment during their junior years. The State Assessment is called an “accountability” test, because it is intended to show whether students meet a number of state learning standards.
A comprehensive 2015 federal education law, called the Every Student Succeeds Act, said local schools could use a nationally recognized test – rather than a test developed for their own states – to measure whether students met their state’s learning standards. The North Dakota Department of Public Instruction advertised this option to local schools, and a number of them jumped at the opportunity.
The change needed approval from the U.S. Department of Education. On Jan. 29, a department assistant secretary denied North Dakota’s request, saying the state had not demonstrated that using the ACT would produce accountability results similar to the North Dakota State Assessment.
Baesler vigorously disputed the department’s conclusions, and began an advocacy effort to ask for reconsideration. As part of that appeal, Baesler enlisted the help of North Dakota’s congressional delegation and the chairs of the U.S. Senate and House education committees, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C.
The department then decided to grant the state’s request. Baesler thanked Education Secretary Betsy DeVos personally for the decision on Monday during a meeting of top state education officials in Washington, D.C.
“This was a concerted effort on our part in North Dakota, at the Department of Public Instruction, to ensure that we as states were leading – for our schools, and our districts, and our students,” Baesler said. “This decision certainly gives more control to our local district leaders. They can work with their parents, their teachers and their students to make the best decisions for their students in their communities.”