The final piece of Colorado’s 2016 testing puzzle should fall in place by year’s end when state officials decide whether the ACT testing company or the College Board, creators of the SAT, will provide 10th and 11th grade exams.

The decision will carry big implications for the state’s 125,000 high school sophomores and juniors and for the teachers who will prepare students for the exams and oversee test taking.

If the state chooses ACT’s bid, sophomores likely will take the ACT Aspire test, already used by some other states, including neighboring Wyoming. The test offered by the College Board is the PSAT 10. Either exam would take less time for students to finish than the PARCC language arts and math tests that 10th graders took last spring.

Sophomores spent more than 11 hours on PARCC tests last spring. The estimated time to take the ACT 10th grade test is a little more than four hours, while the College Board’s offering clocks in at just under three hours. The PARCC tests have been shortened somewhat for next spring.

For juniors, ACT offers the familiar ACT college entrance test, while the College Board provides the SAT exam.

The coming changes make school districts nervous, given that they’ll have only a few months to ramp up for the new exams.

Why Colorado is planning new tests

The two exams are required by the testing overhaul law passed by legislators last spring.

Lawmakers wanted to reduce the amount of time consumed by testing, particularly in high school. Last spring, 9th, 10th and 11th grade students all had to take PARCC language arts and math tests, and juniors also took the ACT. And seniors were required to take science and social studies tests the previous fall.

The legislature retained traditional testing for 9th graders. But it eliminated 11th grade language arts and math exams, and ordered the 10th grade tests replaced with a college readiness test.

Lawmakers wanted to do more than cut testing time. The policy goal behind the changes was to use high school tests that are more focused than PARCC on college readiness. PARCC tests include only language arts and math. The ACT and College Board tests cover reading, writing, math, science and social studies and are calibrated to measure college and workforce readiness.

The policy goal behind the changes was to use high school tests that are more focused than PARCC on gauging student readiness for college and the workforce in reading, writing, math, science and social studies.

The tests taken by sophomores and juniors are meant to be aligned. So, for instance, results on the 10th grade tests are designed to be predictive of results on the 11th grade exams, giving teachers information they can use to help students before they take tests as juniors. Because of the need for alignment, the state will choose one vendor to provide both tests.

Both companies have long history in Colorado

Learn more about the tests

Many people who’ve graduated from Colorado’s high schools remember the ACT. Every high school junior has had to take the test since 2001. About 55,000 students took the test last spring in the state’s public schools.

Even before the ACT became mandatory, it traditionally was the preferred test for students applying to Colorado colleges.

In contrast, the SAT has had a lower profile in Colorado. About 6,500 students who graduated last spring took the test.

Other College Board tests such as Advanced Placement are taken by some high school students, and some districts use other company tests.

Scores on the ACT test are used in the state accountability system as one factor to rate how well high schools are preparing students for college and careers. Overall, student ACT performance has been relatively flat for several years.

Annual scores on other tests like PARCC are also used in school ratings. In addition, the state rating system uses multiple years of test scores to track student academic growth over time.

So a change in the main set of language arts and math tests disrupts the collection of growth data until the new tests are given for at least two years. The state’s rating system is on hold this year because PARCC tests were new last spring.

But no growth data is calculated from multiple years of ACT tests, so switching 11th grade tests isn’t necessarily a problem.

“If SAT can predict college readiness as well as ACT, we don’t lose a lot” by switching, said Lisa Escarcega, chief accountability and research officer for Aurora Public Schools. “It’s a new group of students every year.”

Change raises concerns for districts

There’s a lot of preparation that goes into giving tests, and some districts fear they’re going to have to scramble to get ready once the state announces which tests will be used.

“It really does matter which test,” Escarcega said. “If it’s ACT, the issue is minimized in terms of having to ramp up.”

If the College Board tests are chosen, teachers will need to be trained quickly, Escarcega said.

And Mya Martin-Glenn, the Aurora district’s assessment director, noted that juniors in many districts already have taken practice ACT tests this school year but won’t necessarily be as prepared for SATs.

When tests will be given and who pays

The Department of Education hasn’t yet decided when the tests will given next spring. The 11th grade test will be given on a single day, with one makeup date. The department expects to do the same thing with the 10th grade exam but won’t decide until later. CDE plans to offer the tests on paper, not online.

Those decisions will be made after a testing company is chosen. CDE spokeswoman Dana Smith said the department anticipates making  a recommendation to the state procurement director before the end of the year,” said CDE spokeswoman Dana Smith.

State procedures required the tests be put out to competitive bid, and the testing law requires the tests be rebid every five years.

The state has budgeted $1.8 million for the new 10th grade exam. The current ACT test for juniors costs about $2.1 million a year. An additional $432,000 has been budgeted to cover the costs of juniors who also want to take a writing exam next spring. The state will cover those costs.

Last spring’s testing law also requires the state to cover the costs of 11th grade writing exams for students who wish to take them.

The national picture

In decades past, the ACT and SAT tests were taken primarily by students using them to apply to college. But in recent years both companies have moved into the state test market.

Alabama, Arkansas, Wisconsin and Wyoming use ACT Aspire for 10th graders. Some states also use different versions of Aspire in lower grades. The College Board partners with a dozen states on various tests. And some states use both tests.

See which states use which tests in this list provided by the Education Commission of the States. ECS discusses testing trends in this paper.