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story.lead_photo.caption Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key looks on during the Board of Education's discussion on whether to switch to ACT testing for its statewide assessments in the 2015-2016 school year. - Photo by Gavin Lesnick

The state Board of Education voted Thursday to switch Arkansas' public school testing program to the ACT and ACT Aspire exams, reversing course less than a month after rebuffing Gov. Asa Hutchinson's recommendation that they do so.

But the board that voted 4-2, with two abstentions, on Thursday in favor of the change next school year to ACT from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, was a different makeup from the one that decided at a June 11 meeting to stick with PARCC.

Two members' terms expired and a third resigned after taking a position with the Walton Foundation; all three of Hutchinson's new appointments — Charisse Dean, Brett Williamson and Susan Chambers — voted for the ACT switch.

Hutchinson in a statement early Thursday afternoon lauded the board's vote, saying its "willingness to move away from PARCC and seek this new contract is an indication of the Board’s continued dedication to putting Arkansas’s students first"

"The board members were thoughtful and deliberate on this issue and reached a final decision that I think is best for our students and teachers over the long term," he said. "It provides stability and aligns Arkansas with a nationally recognized testing system."

Two members, Jay Barth and Vicki Saviers, abstained from Thursday's vote, with Barth saying he was doing so in protest.

Barth said he sees positive parts of the ACT test, but has "deep concerns" about its reliability and validity. He said sticking with PARCC or something similar pending consideration of other options over the next year seems like the "best option," but it was not said to be on the table.

He called Thursday's vote tougher than the board's January decision to take over the Little Rock School District, saying it's "so frustrating to not have an option on the table that feels like the right thing to do."

Board member Vicki Saviers said she felt "just in a corner," criticizing the process by which the state presented the ACT plan as not giving the board any good alternatives.

"We literally were handed one option and then basically told that if we don't do this option, it will be our fault that we don't have an assessment," she said, noting that the board was also told only the ACT testing would clear the legislative committee that must approve it. "So we're in a tough spot here."

She added later, before abstaining during the roll-call vote: "My heart is clearly against the motion. But my mind is saying what if the motion fails? Then what happens?"

Board member Diane Zook said the state should stick with PARCC for the next school year while spending the next year investigating other potentially better options. She said she didn't favor one test over another, but voted against the ACT switch.

"To hurry to do something now would not serve the students or the parents or the patrons or the educators well, nor would it give good guidance and appreciation to those people who spent five years coming to the point we are," she said.

Dean — who made the motion to make the switch — said the timing made the ACT the clear best choice, adding that she's been keeping up with the issue even as a new board member who immediately had to consider what Education Commissioner Johnny Key called "one of the weightiest issues that's going to come before this body for quite some time."

"This is not something I've been thrown into," she said. "This is something I've been wading through the last three months."

Key opened the discussion with a review of the benefits to the ACT switch, suggesting it would result in better methodology and prepares students from a young age for the ACT college readiness test.

"This is something that the department takes very seriously and I know the governor takes very seriously," he said. "We must have an assessment for our students on an annual basis that meets the needs of Arkansas."

Debbie Jones, assistant commissioner for learning services for the state Department of Education, also spoke to the board, saying the ACT option provides better preparation in science, technology, engineering and math.

The board on Thursday also heard from four members of the public — three in favor of the ACT switch and one who requested they stick with PARCC. Among the ACT advocates was one familiar face: Alice Mahoney, a former board member whose term expired at the last meeting, when she was the lone vote in favor of switching to ACT.

Hutchinson a day before that June meeting praised the recommendation from the Governor's Council on Common Core Review that Arkansas offer the ACT tests rather than the PARCC ones, which generated some criticism when they debuted this past school year.

The board, however, voted 7-1 at the June meeting not to make the switch with one member, Vicki Saviers, saying the push to make the change "feels a little political" and other members noting strong opposition.

Hutchinson less than two weeks later noted that he had the authority not to continue PARCC testing and directed the state not to continue it. That left the state's assessment program, which is required to receive federal education money, in limbo.

See Friday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for full details.

ACT vote

Jay Barth - Abstain

Joe Black - Yes

Susan Chambers- Yes

Charisse Dean - Yes

Mireya Reith - No

Vicki Saviers - Abstain

Brett Williamson - Yes

Diane Zook - No

Photo by Gavin Lesnick
Debbie Jones, assistant commissioner for learning services for the state Department of Education, speaks Thursday to the state Board of Education.
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Archived Comments

  • BEARTRAP919
    July 9, 2015 at 12:16 p.m.

    Did they hear the Train a Coming?? The Governor's Magic Wand finally was Repaired and got back to Work Promptly.

  • YoungHog
    July 9, 2015 at 12:22 p.m.

    It should have been ACT OR SAT period.. Geesh think of NATIONAL STANDARDS requested by colleges

  • hooverlarry07060619
    July 9, 2015 at 12:42 p.m.

    the GOP will take education back 20 years with Board, if they don't agree with the GOP they get fired

  • Packman
    July 9, 2015 at 1:26 p.m.

    Elections have consequences, libs, deal with it.

  • jnlgray
    July 9, 2015 at 1:45 p.m.

    I wonder why Jay Barth and Vicki Saviers think they can remain effective members of the State Board of Education when they abstain when faced with votes on difficult issues? Any member of any board responsible to the people of the State of Arkansas, particularly in the case of affecting the future of our children, should be dismissed from that board and replaced with people who care to make a difference

  • PopMom
    July 9, 2015 at 1:56 p.m.

    YoungHog,

    This vote is on testing for younger children. The ACT company is not widely used on younger children, and the SAT does not have tests for younger children. I don't think the tests matter as much as the amount of time kids spend reading in school and working math problems under the supervision of qualified teachers. At least, Asa appears to be concerned that the Little Rock schools are awful and is supporting change. Asa is no Rapert who is disrespectful of education. I've always found Asa to be thoughtful even though a little far to the right.

  • Tim479
    July 9, 2015 at 7:28 p.m.

    Well, here we go again, another year wasted with nothing to hold anyone accountable for. If we really want testing to mean something, it should be done the last few weeks of the school year, not two months before the end of the year. How many other states are using ACT? Darn too few to matter. If we don't watch out, we'll soon win the race, the race to be the first one to the bottom.

  • Shoe
    July 9, 2015 at 11:06 p.m.

    Finally got the right puppets on the board and a couple of cowards to play along. What a waste of time and money.

  • DKBerry
    July 9, 2015 at 11:12 p.m.

    Mr. Barth, Ms. Saviers: Please resign. To protect the process Arkansans need the full Board to voice decisions. We now don't know if next time a hard decision must be made whether you will vote or take another pass. Please step aside on behalf of the process and Arkansans or we might be better served with a smaller Board.

  • PopMom
    July 10, 2015 at 6:29 a.m.

    I really don't think that this is a huge issue. Even when Arkansas has taken the same tests as other states and scored near the bottom, the politicians have done next to nothing. At least some movement is being taken to improve some of the schools in the state which are at the bottom. When the kids are proficient at reading and math, it shows up on any test. The most important movement has to be for more time spent reading and solving math problems. We need more qualified teachers and more help for children who are disadvantaged--longer school hours, more reading assistants, more therapists etc. Let's not quibble over the tests.

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