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Illinois switching to ACT exams for state assessments

ISBE sign
Andrew Campbell/Capitol News Illinois

When Illinois high school students sit down to take their annual state assessments next year, they will take a different exam than in recent years.

The Illinois State Board of Education recently announced that starting next spring, it will use the ACT exam rather than the SAT.

Both are standardized tests that measure students’ proficiency in core subjects such as English language arts and math. Both are also commonly used for college admissions – although many colleges and universities have stopped requiring them – as well as scholarship applications.

Illinois, however, also uses them as part of the battery of tests schools administer each year to meet federal mandates under the Every Student Succeeds Act. Results of those tests are reported each year on the Illinois Report Card and are used to hold schools and districts accountable for meeting basic academic standards.

Illinois started using the SAT with Essay as the state assessment for 11th grade students in spring 2017. Two years later, it began using the PSAT 8/9 exam for 9th grade students and the PSAT 10 for high school sophomores.

At the time, according to ISBE, incorporating a college entrance exam into the state’s annual assessment program was considered a bonus because it gave nearly all graduating high school students a reportable score, paid for by the state, which they could then use for college and scholarship applications.

In recent years, though, many colleges and universities stopped requiring either the SAT or ACT as part of their application and admission processes.

In 2021, Illinois lawmakers passed the Higher Education Fair Admissions Act requiring all public universities and community colleges to adopt a “test-optional” policy for admissions, meaning students could voluntarily choose whether to include them in their application package. But ISBE continued using the tests as part of its federally mandated statewide assessments.

The upcoming switch to the ACT exam came about through ISBE’s routine procurement process. The agency’s contract with the College Board, the nonprofit corporation that operates the SAT, was set to expire on June 30, prompting the agency to open a new bidding process.

The state board agreed to open the bidding process and solicit sealed proposals from testing companies at its regular monthly meeting in September 2023. The decision to award a six-year, $53 million contract to ACT was finalized in May.

According to an FAQ document that ISBE has circulated, one of the advantages of switching exams is the ACT includes a science component, whereas the SAT only covered the core subjects of reading, writing and math. That means 11th grade students will no longer have to take a separate Illinois Science Assessment, thereby reducing overall testing time.

The change also means that students who still want to take the SAT or the PSAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test will have to do so on their own, in addition to the statewide ACT accountability exam. Local schools and districts will have the option of choosing whether to administer those tests during the school day, but the state will not pay for students to take those tests.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of newspapers, radio and TV stations statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.

Peter Hancock joined the Capitol News Illinois team as a reporter in January 2019.