|Posted On February 19, 2014|
After school one day last week, 22 Nixa High School students spent a couple of hours honing their math skills for the ACT.
It’s just one of the afternoons they’re giving up this year to learn test-taking strategies, take practice exams and brush up on key subjects — math, science, language arts and reading — covered in the national exam.
They’re going above-and-beyond because they believe the ACT, widely used to gauge college readiness, can help determine college admission and scholarships.
“I think more people should take it,” said senior Zack Wilson, of the exam. “I don’t think as many take it as should.”
That could soon change. Nearly 75 percent of Missouri high school graduates, or about 50,000 students a year, take the exam at least once.
State education officials want to dramatically increase that number so they’re offering to pay for one ACT test for every high school junior.
The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education proposal is part of a revised assessment plan for the 2014-15 school year. In addition to saving families the expense — $52.50 with the writing portion — it would also provide a statewide gauge of students’ readiness for college and careers.
In 2013, Missouri’s ACT composite score remained at 21.6 — out of a possible 36 — for the ninth year in a row. Out of 20 states where 50 percent or more graduates take the exam, Missouri’s composite score is ranked 7th.
Springfield Associate Superintendent Marty Moore said the move is another way the state is emphasizing that districts must focus on making graduates ready to be successful in college and careers.
“We’re cautiously optimistic,” said Moore, noting Springfield’s ACT participation rate is about 65 percent. “We do think there will be students that will take advantage.”
Moore said college-bound students likely see the test as essential. Some families will pay for a student to take it multiple times. However, the cost may be more of an issue for students who are on the fence about going to college.
“If you have to come up with the funding yourself, it can be optional,” she said.
Details about how a statewide push to administer the ACT to every junior would work are still being finalized. It’s unclear if the test — now periodically offered on Saturdays throughout the year — would be given during the school day.
Clay Hanna, Nixa’s executive director of secondary education, said it will essentially be required. One of the challenges may be motivating students who don’t plan to go to college.
“You’re going to have a few students who don’t feel like they need to take the test because of their post-graduate plans,” Hanna said. “Most kids and parents realize the value of that test because colleges value it.”
Hanna and others said the average composite score may go down slightly if participation rates jump up close to 100 percent. “There is no doubt that it will,” he said. “You go from testing just a portion of the students to testing all the students.”
Demand for ACT preparation sessions, like the one taught last week by Nixa High math teacher Sarah Garrison, may go up.
Garrison, who teaches algebra III and Advanced Placement calculus, said the ACT exam is set up differently than most tests students will encounter in high school. Science, for example, is not subject-specific, and the questions get harder the further students go in each section.
She administers practice ACT exams so students can get a feel for how the test is structured and how questions are asked.
“The more they see it, the more confidence it will bring,” she said.
A trained ACT coach, Garrison also teaches pacing strategies and how to eliminate wrong answers during the multiple choice sections.
Marcus Johnson, a junior at Nixa High, scored a 22 out of 36 the first time he took the exam. He signed up for the prep class.
“I’m hoping to get a 28,” said Johnson, who wants to study architecture. “For me, it’s important to go to college and to get into the one I want.”
In Ozark, 66 percent of last year’s graduates had taken the exam and the district’s composite score was above the state average. Since more than six out of 10 take it now, Assistant Superintendent Craig Carson said the expansion will not be hard.
“Since the majority of our students take it, it’s not going to be a huge adjustment,” he said.
Carson said it’s critical, though, that students understand the test can provide feedback about their level of readiness for college and for careers. The latter isn’t emphasized enough.
“It’s also careers,” he said. “It gives them much more information.”
Under the tentative state plans, the ACT would likely be given twice during the year — possibly the second and fourth weeks of April — and the instructions will be very specific.
“It will be given twice across the state at the exact same day and time,” he said. “There are going to be some pretty tight controls. We’ve never tested like this before.”