At STRIVE Excel, a northwest Denver charter high school, students Friday shuffled through the hallways in pajamas. Some wrapped themselves in cozy fleece blankets.
School leaders hoped this spirit day would send a message to juniors: Get plenty of rest this weekend. A big test is coming.
On Tuesday, 11th graders across Colorado for the first time will take the new-look SAT, which is replacing the ACT as the mandatory state test for that grade. The results, like those from the ACT in years past, will factor into the state’s accountability system for school and districts.
Following a nationwide trend in standardized testing, the updated SAT puts less emphasis on rote memorization — students won’t need to know the definition of “garrulous” or other infamous “SAT words” — and puts a greater emphasis on critical thinking. There are fewer questions and students will spend more time explaining their work.
The shift from the ACT to the SAT comes as the state continues to refine its testing system amid a public backlash against standardized tests. The results from those tests are used in part to rate the quality of each school.
“The SAT is really about college,” said Ben Lewis, the principal at STRIVE Excel principal. “It’s a much easier argument for kids than a complicated accountability system.”
Colorado’s adoption of the SAT is the byproduct of a 2015 legislative compromise forged during a months-long debate about testing.
The ACT had been a required test for 11th graders since 2011. In 2014, the state began requiring students in that grade to also take state PARCC tests in math and English.
The backlash — at least in some communities — was immediate. Thousands of students concentrated in high-performing, wealthy suburban districts and some rural areas skipped the PARCC tests in protest. That caused state lawmakers to reconsider how it tests in high school.
Legislation in 2015 eliminated PARCC for both 10th and 11th graders. After intense lobbying by The College Board, makers of the SAT, lawmakers also decided to open to competitive bidding the 10th and 11th grade testing that would remain.
A panel of educators commissioned by the state education department picked the PSAT for 10th graders and the SAT for 11th graders.
Those teachers and testing experts found the SAT better aligned to the state’s academic standards, which include the Common Core in math and English. The panel also felt the SAT offered more and cheaper resources to schools to help students prepare.
Some test prep materials are even free.
“We’ve never been able to budget a teacher to do test prep,” said Julie Knowles, assessment director for the Garfield School District in western Colorado, who was part of the panel that selected the SAT. “So the free resources have been a boon.”
Garfield’s two high schools have purchased additional SAT-aligned tests for lower grades to help track student progress. The two schools spent a combined $3,069, or $8.50 per student, for each test.
The decision to move to the PSAT and SAT in the spring of 2016 was announced just before Christmas in 2015. It sparked an outcry among school officials across the state.
School leaders, including Cherry Creek School District Superintendent Harry Bull, said the timing of the decision was unacceptable: Schools had already been preparing students to take the ACT that spring.
As a compromise, the department agreed to hold off on moving to the SAT until 2017.
Cherry Creek had other cause for concern: Like some other school districts, it was already using companion tests, known as Aspire, published by the ACT to track student learning through multiple grades — and, ideally, setting students up for success on the ACT.
The local use of the Aspire tests, which the suburban Denver school district decided to maintain despite the shift to the SAT, helps maintain a long-term dataset amid changes in testing at the state level, said Judy Skupa, an assistant superintendent in Cherry Creek.
“With the volatility of the state assessment system, it was difficult to monitor students,” she said. “That’s why we went to an internal system. Our data won’t be subject to political winds.”
Policymakers aren’t done tinkering with the state’s testing system.
Lawmakers want to continue expanding the SAT’s reach in high school. If a bipartisan compromise becomes law this year, ninth graders would stop taking the PARCC test this year and begin taking a version of the PSAT next spring.
And because the state’s contract with PARCC is up this year, the state education department is seeking bids to find a new test for the state’s elementary and middle schools.
“There’s a lot of flux coming in the next several years,” said Garfield’s Knowles, adding that her parents trust the SAT, and as a result testing is up at her schools. “We don’t have to sell it. They see it as a gateway for kids who want to go to college. Even if they want to go on a vocational path.”
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.