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How Our North Star is Lighting a Path for Assessment Development

By: Kelly Smith, senior content specialist, English Language Arts, and Tina Gridiron, vice president, ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning

At ACT, our true strength comes from sharing our expertise in research and analytics, and using this knowledge to create opportunities so that all students can fulfill their potential. That starts with making sure our tests include high-quality, valid assessments that reflect the material being taught in American classrooms.

In 2021 and 2022, the ACT English Language Arts content team initiated a series of roundtable discussions to examine equitable representation in ACT reading passages. The roundtable participants were some of the country’s leading educators and researchers, including reading and literacy experts, with extensive experience with student-centered perspectives on diverse representation. In each roundtable, panelists reviewed and provided feedback on potential passages considered for use in the ACT reading assessment.

“This roundtable series provided a rare opportunity to come together with colleagues who share various forms of expertise in education, and who often haven’t seen ourselves represented in affirming and nuanced ways in K-12 curriculum (and even less so in assessment materials),” said Betina Hsieh, a professor in the College of Education at California State University, Long Beach and one of the roundtable experts. “The project’s intentional focus on integrating texts with diverse perspectives that honor our increasingly diverse student body has the potential to make important shifts in the way we think about how authentic assessments can serve students.”

Roundtables focused on different identity groups.

The English Language Arts team identified select ACT reading passages for the panelists’ consideration. Each roundtable focused, respectively, on passages that center on authors and perspectives from one of four identity groups: Black; Latinx; Native American; and Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI).

We also identified the following areas of expertise as top priorities in selecting panelists:
  • Classroom or research-based perspectives on student experiences of the identity group of focus.
  • Equity perspectives on student success.
  • Experience teaching literature or English Language Arts.
  • Research perspectives on cultural studies related to the identity group of focus.
Passages were anchored through narrative framing.

When selecting passages for the ACT reading assessment, the English Language Arts team considers the many ways that students bring their lived experiences to the act of reading in the assessment context. While ACT reading passages must meet a host of other requirements, including those related to text complexity, length, and subject matter, we also prioritize materials with culturally affirming representations likely to be inclusive and accessible to students of all backgrounds. Roundtable panelists were invited to engage in close reading and discussion of the selected passages with this student-centered perspective.

We received abundant practical feedback and advice specific to each of the identity groups of focus. Furthermore, a sustained focus on narrative and journalistic framing emerged across the different roundtables. A number of panelists separately advised on the benefit of seeking asset-framed representations that introduce people according to their assets and aspirations rather than perceived deficit-associations or negative social factors. Discussions repeatedly explored, in-depth, how “asset-framed” representations can provide a framework for evaluating whether a passage is engaging with complex realities while also creating a positive representation.

A roadmap to results was drawn.

The roundtable discussions confirmed that ACT’s approach to providing high-quality, authentic assessment materials can align with the needs and interests of today’s increasingly diverse high school student body. Additionally, the rich insights and constructive feedback of the discussions further build on ACT’s best practices for fairness, inclusion, and excellence in assessment development.

To be sure, diverse and equitable representation in assessment materials doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time and hard work, exemplified by our commitment to Equity by Design. At ACT, we are redefining readiness, which we see as an ongoing journey — not a destination.

Learn more about the roundtables and ACT’s efforts to strengthen diverse and equitable representation across reading assessment materials in the report, Affirming and Equitable Representations in ACT Reading: A Roundtable Discussion Series.