ACT ASPIRE Stumbles Out of the Gate

Across the country administrators are grumbling about the updated pre-ACT assessment, the ASPIRE, available online for students in grades 3-11.  The digital ASPIRE has now replaced the paper-based EXPLORE, previously administered to 8th and 9th grades, and PLAN tests, provided to 10th grade students. Although the EXPLORE and PLAN were easy to administer, relatively affordable, and one source of the ACT’s rise to national prominence, the ASPIRE is more expensive, out of reach for many small schools, and has faced more than its share of implementation challenges in its inaugural year.

Strategists at the ACT Inc., anticipating the national move towards comprehensive digital assessment, decided to offer the ASPIRE in a primarily digital format, with paper-based options available at a premium. Having killed off the cheaper EXPLORE and PLAN tests, the ACT Inc. left school administrators no option but to switch to the ASPIRE, use unofficial materials, or deny their students a pre-ACT assessment.

We’ve talked with school administrators across our various markets who were wary of the ASPIRE. We’ve received feedback that the initial rollout of the digital ASPIRE has been rocky, with technical glitches and implementation issues. Chief complaints among school administrators are the longer duration of test administration, the excessive delay in returning scores, and the impractical format of score reports, with one giant PDF in lieu of separate reports per student.

What concerns many administrators more than buggy implementation is the significantly higher price of the ASPIRE.  Schools were used to paying roughly $9 for each PLAN or EXPLORE test, with no concerns regarding minimum orders. The new ASPIRE is hitting high schools in the wallet, with a price tag essentially double that of the paper-based PLAN and EXPLORE tests: $17 per student for the summative 5-subject test digital assessment, or $23 for a paper version. Schools can add on periodic tests at $6/student or opt for the comprehensive option, with periodic and summative tests, for an additional fee. The ASPIRE is clearly much more than the paper-based PLAN or EXPLORE tests, but for cash-strapped school districts across the country, price is everything.

One of our private school colleagues who has been purchasing and administering the PLAN for years anticipated spending roughly $13 per head for the PLAN for her sophomores. She was concerned that the ASPIRE was offered primarily in a digital format that was incompatible with the electronic tablets the school had purchased for its students. The increased expense, however, was the deal breaker. She was quoted an ASPIRE price of $22/student in the online format and $28/student for the paper version. She commented: “Almost $16 more, and they couldn’t tell me what I was getting for the additional money!”

Smaller private schools we work with in our various markets are complaining about the minimum orders. For cost and economy purposes, ACT, Inc. is setting minimum ordering thresholds of $2,000, which can be priced out over 3 years. That puts the minimum at 40 kids per school year for the basic summative assessment.

While the popular PLAN and EXPLORE tests helped fuel the ACT Inc.’s ascendancy over the College Board, offering a counter to the PSAT and helping instill a pre-ACT culture in schools across the country, the new ASPIRE may serve as a stumbling block.  Although the ASPIRE is a step forward in its content, Common Core alignment, and advanced question types, the fundamentals of price, accessibility and reliability generally trump all other product innovations. Last month at the annual conference for the National Association for College Admission Counseling, one of the ACT, Inc. reps admitted to a less than stellar early reception for the ASPIRE. The rollout is going much slower than anticipated, and I’m sure some of the ACT, Inc. strategists are questioning the abrupt retiring of the PLAN and EXPLORE in lieu of a gradual phase-out and a gradual build up for the ASPIRE.

The leaders at ACT, Inc. need to quickly work out the implementation issues and debug their digital assessment. Then they must figure out a way to make the test accessible to smaller schools and affordable to cash-strapped districts. Twice the price for a digital test does not seem like a smart play in the current economic climate.  Many schools will look for a cheaper alternative, and the College Board may shrewdly offer a lower-priced version of its pending pre-SAT assessment.

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