The Granholm administration’s decision to phase out the Michigan Educational Assessment Program should be welcomed as a departure from a testing system long out of favor among the state’s residents. Replacing the MEAP will be the Michigan Merit Exam, a two-day, in-school testing program that will include a free ACT test, as well as a more specialized component designed for Michigan. This reform, which was originally undertaken to bring Michigan in line with the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, is a marked improvement over the old MEAP system. However, if seen as part of a broader initiative to increase college enrollment, it is simply inadequate: Financial support for public universities must increase if the state is sincere about doubling its number of college graduates.
The NCLB Act, one of President Bush’s signature domestic achievements, established a strict system that mandates standardized testing for students at a number of grade levels. In response, the Granholm administration decided to gut the MEAP, which was an optional exam, and replace it with a mandatory standardized test. However, despite NCLB’s intentions, standardized tests are simply not an adequate assessment of a school’s true performance. Furthermore, with any standardized testing regime, there is a considerable fear that teachers will simply begin teaching to the test; bad test performance by students reflects badly on teachers. Yet, the benefits of offering the ACT free of cost – even though it is a standardized test – far outweigh the drawbacks.
The ACT-centered Michigan Merit Exam, while still standardized, is much easier to swallow than its predecessor. The exam will provide all students with the opportunity to take the ACT, previously only administered to 68 percent of Michigan students. The ACT is indispensable to the college application process and will likely be so for years to come. Whether students prepare for it or not, the free ACT score will give students previously apathetic about the college application process a strong incentive to apply. Once they realize they’re already half way there, previously discouraged students will be far more inclined to follow through.
Increasing the number of students taking college entrance exams promises to bring more minority and low-income students into the state’s university system, one of the main goals of Lt. Gov. John Cherry’s Commission on Higher Education, which Granholm chartered to advise state educational policy. In fact, data from Illinois and Colorado, two states that have recently implemented similar testing programs, shows just that.
But while promising, testing reform is but a drop in the bucket when considering the sweeping changes necessary to bring dramatic increases in the proportion of residents with college degrees. While the Cherry Commission report made it explicitly clear that the state needs to dramatically increase its number of college graduates, the financial commitment necessary to make this happen has been sorely lacking. To this end, raising the number of in-state applicants will do little to double the state’s number of graduates so long as state universities remain strapped for resources, unable to absorb the costs of an influx of new students. If Lansing wants testing reform to bear any fruit, it will complement it with a renewed emphasis on higher education.