Sweaty palms and rapid heartbeats will multiply this spring as Nebraska launches a pilot project that will allow thousands of high school students take the ACT exam for free.
The entire junior classes in eight Nebraska school districts — nearly 3,800 students in all — will take the college readiness test. The three-year pilot program will cost the state about $430,000, the majority of which will pay for testing fees.
Officials with the Nebraska Department of Education want to know if the ACT can someday replace the 11th-grade Nebraska state tests in reading, math, writing and science. Officials suspect some high school juniors would view the ACT more seriously than they do state tests.
And officials are curious if testing all juniors, instead of just the high-achieving ones whose parents can afford it, would identify kids with college potential who are slipping through the cracks. Testing everyone also could send a message that schools expect all kids to strive for college, they said.
The ACT exam measures college readiness in four areas: English, math, reading and science.
In Nebraska and Iowa, students take the ACT, and sometimes also the SAT, to meet college admission requirements. But not every student takes it, and in most cases, parents pay the $34 testing fee. In Nebraska, 76 percent of the 2011 graduating class, or 16,461 graduates, took the ACT. In Iowa, 61 percent, or 22,968 students, did.
Eight states — Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, North Carolina, North Dakota, Tennessee and Wyoming — already require all public school 11th-graders to take the ACT as part of their statewide assessment programs, according to Ed Colby, an ACT spokesman.
Alabama is scheduled to begin statewide testing of 11th-graders next year, Colby said. Pilots to expose more students to the exam are under way in several states, he said.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad has proposed requiring all Iowa 11th-graders to take either the ACT or the SAT test and having the state cover the cost.
Pat Roschewski, Nebraska's director of assessment, said that under the federal No Child Left Behind law, states currently can't substitute the ACT for state exams used for federal accountability, so states often use it to complement their assessments.
However, No Child Left Behind is overdue for a rewrite, and states are looking for ways to use the ACT. Wyoming lawmakers are considering legislation that would integrate the ACT's battery of college readiness tests into their assessment system, hoping that the Obama administration will agree to a waiver from No Child Left Behind to allow it.
Bob Evnen, a member of the Nebraska State Board of Education, said Nebraska's academic standards were not written with the ACT in mind, but they align closely with what the ACT assesses.
Districts participating in the pilot were chosen to reflect the state's racial and socioeconomic makeup and to reflect the state geographically. The districts are Lincoln, Columbus, Hastings, Alliance, Sidney, South Sioux City, Gering and Scottsbluff.
Marilyn Moore, associate superintendent with the Lincoln Public Schools, said that about 20 percent of last year's graduates in her district did not take the ACT.
"You always wonder if, for some of those students, was it something they just didn't even know about, didn't cross their radar, because they're not from a college-attending family?" Moore said. "Did the cost of them keep them from doing it, even though the cost is pretty low? Is there a student who missed an opportunity because they didn't take the ACT?"
In the Lincoln district's class of 2011, 1,525 students took the test. This year's juniors will be tested April 24. As many as 500 additional students who otherwise would not have been tested could take part through the pilot, she said. For students who would have taken it anyway, the test will give them an attempt at no cost to their families, she said.
There is a downside for the participating districts: a public perception problem. Testing all kids probably will push down the average scores for the participating districts.
Of the eight states that tested 100 percent of their juniors last year, all posted average ACT scores lower than Nebraska's 22.1 and Iowa's 22.3.
Moore expects Lincoln's average score, annually among the state's best, will take a hit.
"I don't have a prediction on how much the score might lower. What I do know is that our score that's higher than the state's pulls up the state average," she said. "So if our score drops, probably the state score will drop also."
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