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Students getting ready for ACT

Quick multiple choice question: High school students are allowed to take the American College Test …

A) one time

B) two times

C) four times

D) 12 times

If you filled in bubble D, you’re right, though only a few of the 1.8 million students who take the ACT each year actually push that limit.

For students headed to an ACT test site Saturday morning at Centennial High School, Danville Area Community College or three other area high schools, this could be one of several rounds of test-taking.

According to ACT figures, 44 percent of last year’s graduating class took the test at least twice, and it’s not uncommon for students to take it even more.

Take Peter Butler. The 17-year-old Centennial senior couldn’t remember exactly how many times he’d taken it “five or six or sevenish” but counselor Laura Beata checked his file: six. Plus an equivalent number of Scholastic Aptitude Tests, the other major college admissions test. He improved his scores significantly on both.

“I’ve taken it just about every single time I could, from the fall of my junior year to last October,” Butler said Thursday. So did his twin brother.

Students are also investing in ACT test preparation courses, according to high school counselors. Some schools, including Urbana High, offer courses after school, and a state website, “What’s Next Illinois?”, offers free online prep. The ACT sells prep materials for $22 to $35.

But more and more students hoping to bump their scores are paying $400 or more for other classes through Parkland College, Stanley Kaplan or Better Test Scores, a company run by former Centennial High School teacher Jason Franklin.

“For college-bound students, ACT and placement-test prep is almost a necessity because of how competitive it is,” said Erin Ludwick, who teaches Urbana’s prep class through a federal grant.

A one- or two-point improvement in a composite score could mean the difference between rejection or acceptance at a selective school or several thousand dollars in scholarship money, parents and counselors said. College costs are “crazy,” Beata said, and merit scholarships are often awarded on the basis of grade-point average and ACT scores.

“If it’s something you can afford, you want to give them the best prep you can,” said Dena Bagger, whose son Josh is taking a course once a week from Better Test Scores. He took the ACT in December, to get a baseline score, and will take it again in April at Central High School.

The course “gives them good test-taking skills,” Bagger said. All Illinois public high school juniors are required to take the ACT on April 23, as part of the two-day Prairie State Achievement Exam. That test is free.

This year, they’ll take not only the four main multiple-choice sections math, science, English and reading but a 30-minute writing test as well, which was introduced as an option by ACT in 2005 at the request of some colleges.

“Besides that, we try to recommend to all our students to take the ACT a minimum of two times, if not three,” said Kevin Flores, counselor at Urbana. “Generally speaking, colleges are going to be looking at the highest score, so it’s to their benefit.”

Repeat testing makes sense, “if nothing else to get those nerves out the first time, and to give yourself a benchmark,” Beata said.

Most Illinois schools give their students pre-ACT tests during their freshman and sophomore years, with essentially the same structure and type of questions. And they take an ACT practice test in the fall of their junior year. Students can also take two online tests through ACT, said Jennifer Stroud, counselor at Central.

It’s “fairly common” for students to take the regular ACT two or three times, particularly those headed to four-year colleges, Beata and Stroud said.

Students might take the ACT in February, to get a baseline score. Then, if they aren’t happy with their April score, they can take it again in June and September or October. At that point they have several solid scores to choose from, which can reach college admissions offices before the Nov. 1 priority application deadlines, Stroud said.

Some students will take it a fourth, fifth or sixth time, but it’s not usually recommended, Flores said. Unless they take an intensive prep class, scores don’t vary much.

ACT officials advise retesting if students were sick or ran out of time during their first test, or if they believe their scores don’t accurately reflect their ability, or if they’ve taken an extensive prep course since then.

Research shows that of the students from the 2013 graduating class who took the ACT more than once, about 57 percent improved their composite score, 21 percent saw no change, and 22 percent received a lower score. The typical second score is about 1 point higher, on a 1-36 point scale.

The company sends only one set of scores to the colleges students list on their form, and students can choose which ones to report. Some colleges will “super score,” combining the highest score the student earned on each section over multiple test dates to form their own composite score. (The UI does not super score.)

ACT doesn’t track how many students take a prep course.

“Our feeling is that the best way to prepare for the ACT is to take challenging courses in school, study hard and learn the material. That’s what the ACT is measuring, what you’ve learned,” said ACT spokesman Ed Colby.

“We believe that a student doesn’t need to spend lots of money on test prep programs to do well on the ACT.”

Stroud said the ideal level of preparation varies by student. Some students can hit a 30 or more on the ACT on their own. Others don’t test as well, and benefit from the tips in the prep classes, she said.

“There are strategies to it. Knowing some tricks of the trade can be helpful.”

Butler took the prep class from Better Test Scores and said it “definitely” helped, particularly on the science section. He learned to look at the questions and then find similar phrases in the passage, rather than trying to decipher concepts he didn’t understand. “It’s like searching through Google, but you’re Google,” he said.

His last composite score was 3 points higher than his initial test.

“I’ve applied to a lot of places, and they’re pretty selective. Those extra 3 points matter to me,” he said.

Franklin, who’s been teaching ACT prep since 1995 and full-time since he left Centennial in 2007, says the average improvement for students in his class is 4 points. He teaches courses in Peoria, Springfield, Bloomington and Decatur as well as Champaign. The cost is $475 (less for online courses) and students can take classes weekly, or during winter break, spring break or the summer.

Franklin applies training concepts used for athletes, giving students strategies to focus on at home, whether it’s more reading (for most of them) or a math tutor.

He’s had 50 middle-school students in his class. One scored a 28 on the ACT last year. She’d read all her life, he said, unlike many technology-reliant students today.

The stakes have become higher since Franklin was in high school in the 1980s and “you took it once and that was it,” he said. Colleges that used to rely on high school GPAs place much more emphasis on the ACT because No Child Left Behind has led to grade inflation, he argued.

His goal is to help students maximize their scholarship potential. The test, he said, “is about money.”

One final tip: He advises taking the ACT on a national test date June, December or April when students can buy back a copy of the test and their answers and see what they did wrong. That option is not available for the April 23 in-school test, he said.

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