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Will Michigan Students' College Dreams Come Unbalanced?

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This has been a big week for Michigan's future. A federal judge allowed Detroit to continue its journey into bankruptcy, a decision that has caught the attention of city pensioners, art lovers everywhere, and soon, a federal appeals court.

Change was also the subject of conversation this Monday, when the Michigan Department of Education announced their intention to stay with a new statewide assessment tool to measure student achievement in public schools. Smarter Balanced is designed to measure many of the outcomes of Common Core, the education standards recently adopted by Michigan and most other states. Smarter Balanced is scheduled to debut in 2015, replacing the Michigan Education Assessment Program, the omnipresent tests middle school students honor with the schoolyard ditty, "I MEAP in my sleep."

Most supporters of Common Core see the new tests as progress. Not only are Smarter Balanced exams designed to measure progress and achievement in Common Core, but the uniform tests replace the hodgepodge of K-12 tests students currently endure. This aggregation of examinations is highlighted in the Michigan Merit Exam, where eleventh graders take a couple of parts of the MEAP test; a standardized career readiness test, and the ACT, the lesser-known college admissions exam.

The loss of this past piece of the MME is what worries some of even the most vocal Smarter Balanced/Common Core advocates. Since ACT measures college readiness, its utility as a general assessment for all students has long been questioned by some. If a student isn't planning on going to college, why measure their success in high school with a college readiness test?

At the same time, more students than ever are applying to four-year colleges, and almost all four-year colleges in Michigan require the ACT as part of their admissions process. Since the test usually costs students $50 and is given on a Saturday morning, a free ACT given during the school day as part of the MME moves all college-interested students closer to applying. Replace all of MME with Smarter Balanced, and students are back to finding their way to the ACT on their own -- not a tough task for some students from college-savvy families, but a remarkably difficult burden for low income students, or students whose parents didn't go to college.

The American work ethic may suggest, "If they really want to go to college, they'll find a way to take the test", but that doesn't address the problem at hand. Applying to college is a complex process for most people to understand -- even for families where the parents are college graduates. Telling a first-generation college student to "figure it out", and asking their family to choose between paying for the ACT and paying the light bill, makes college a tougher reality. While low-income families can qualify for a fee waiver to take the ACT, that isn't common knowledge among families in need, despite the best efforts of overworked school counselors.

More needs to be done to encourage students and families to become better self-advocates in the college selection process, and many improvements are already in place. But putting a student's college dream in peril because of a slow-changing support system is wrong-headed, both for the students and Michigan's economy.

Keeping the ACT as part of the new high school assessment program gives high schools important information on the real-life goal of college readiness for college-bound students, and helps all Michigan juniors make informed plans for life after high school. Combined with fresh assessments to measure the new curriculum, this mix of old and new is the smartest balance we could hope for.