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CASPER, Wyo. — The state's 11th-graders will still have to take the ACT college preparation exam, despite a Wyoming Assessment Task Force recommendation to offer an alternative test that gauges students’ ability to enter the workforce, lawmakers decided this week.

The ACT has come under fire in Wyoming, with critics saying the state depends too heavily on the test to measure student performance. They contend the ACT is expensive and doesn't align well with the state's own standards and curriculum.

The Select Committee on Statewide Education Accountability met Monday and Tuesday in Jackson. Proposed bills that will go before legislators in the coming session include a number of changes — nixing ACT language from current statutes, limiting student testing time to less than 1 percent of their total hours and holding schools serving at-risk students accountable to tailored standards created by a panel of alternative education professionals.

Representatives from the Wyoming Department of Education also updated the committee on the progress of a statewide system of support, which was mandated by the Legislature, but that has yet to be implemented in full.

ACT discussion

The Assessment Task Force, a group of 26 educators, parents and school administrators, began meeting in June. Members of the task force proposed making the ACT optional for 11th-graders, offering in its place an exam such as the ACT Workkeys test.

State schools chief Jillian Balow said the ACT offers a baseline of performance data that the department can use. Additionally, the superintendent of public instruction said her administration's focus is on preparing all students for college, careers or the military upon graduation. Taking the ACT gives students another option — college — whether they are planning on entering higher education or not, she said.

The ACT is a predictor of how well a student will fare in a college class, said Walt Wilcox, vice superintendent of the Natrona County School District and a member of the Department of Education board of trustees.

Support for removing the ACT mandate was varied among board members, but they ultimately endorsed the task force's recommendation, Wilcox said

“I don’t know that every student needs to take the ACT,” he said.

But years ago, when the test was optional in Wyoming, the state had a high participation rate anyway, he added.

The committee, in line with the superintendent’s suggestion, did not follow the task force’s recommendation. But they did remove ACT-specific language from the related statutes.

Kari Eakins, spokeswoman for the department, said this allows school officials an advantage when bartering with ACT administrators on cost.

Reducing testing time

A bill on statewide student assessment includes a measure to limit the number of hours students spend on testing each year to less than 1 percent.

That percentage is between 9 to 11 hours, depending on the grade level, Wilcox said. The push for less testing time is happening both in Wyoming and nationally this year. The Obama administration has also recommended less time devoted to testing.

Schools that serve at-risk students should be exempt from some of the performance expectations of other schools, the committee members agreed.

The committee designated $15,000 for alternative school assessment. The money will fund a panel of professionals to set performance goals for these schools and will continue paying for the existing technical advisory group on alternative schools.

Alternative schools are not now part of the statewide accountability model, Wilcox said.

“They’re going to require a different look at how you define success in those alternative schools,” he said.

On a district level, alternative schools tend to receive extra support, such as smaller student-teacher ratios and additional counseling opportunities.

Teacher, district support

Seventeen schools were classified as failing under the state assessment guidelines this year.

The department has been working on a statewide system of support for those types of schools since the Wyoming Accountability in Education Act, passed in 2012. But there has been trouble getting things off the ground, partially due to administration changes at the head of the department, said Brent Young, the agency's chief policy officer.

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Committee member Mike Madden, R-Buffalo, said he would like the system of support to come along faster.

Others agree that the state needs the system in place as soon as possible.

Ideally, a system of support would be in place before accountability measures, Young said.

“They are creating a system that is probably three years delayed,” Wilcox said. “I would give credit to the Department of Ed, working with our state board on really getting things kicked off over the last 11 months.”

Eleven months is the length of Balow’s tenure.

Officials have put into place a number of measures that should help schools that are falling below expectations, but also keep schools from getting to that point, Young said.

The 17 failing schools have to submit a plan for improvement to their local district.

“They will be required to go through a needs assessment and a data review,” Young said. “With those two items they will determine a focus of improvement.”

The schools have about three years to show that they are making progress before the state gets more heavily involved, he added.

Formerly, federal law controlled what happened to schools that continued to fall below standards, but with the new federal education law, Wyoming will develop its own protocol, according to Young.

Ninety percent of Wyoming’s schools have submitted a comprehensive school plan, a requirement under the 2012 WAEA but one that hasn’t been implemented until now.

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