Hannah Pokharel, 16, is two points away from perfection.

Her ACT composite score of 34 is already exceptional.

But the junior at Millard South High School is not done.

She plans to take the ACT exam again in December, hoping to add a point or two and boost her college opportunities.

In the meantime, the rewards for her efforts include a bright blue 30+ ACT Club T-shirt and a free breakfast, compliments of her school.

Those are perks for high scorers at Millard South.

The club is one example of what Millard officials call their “ACT culture,” encouraging and assisting kids to do well on the exam.

It is one district that has embraced the state’s move to give all kids the ACT once in high school.

Pokharel said she has experienced Millard’s focus.

“I remember even in my freshman year science class, every time we had a test, we’d do a short science passage for the ACT,” she said. “Most classes last year and this year have had something that’s timed, and that works on the skills. That kind of made it more familiar, so it kind of helped.”

ACT scores released this month provide a new baseline on which Nebraska schools can build.

The state average composite score of 20.1 for the 2018 graduating class is the first to include all students.

It is lower than last year’s 21.4 but it also more accurately reflects the senior class’s college preparedness. It also makes comparing scores to previous years problematic.

Statewide, about half the graduating class scored below the admissions target for University of Nebraska-Lincoln and University of Nebraska at Omaha. And fewer than a quarter of graduates met all four college readiness benchmarks — targets that predict success in first-year college courses.

The correlation between a school’s poverty rate and test scores is evident.

Made with Flourish

High schools in the Omaha Public Schools with high poverty scored low. Suburban schools with low poverty scored better.

For example, Elkhorn South High School scored highest with a 24.6. Lowest was Benson at 14.9. Their respective poverty rates, based on federal lunch subsidies, were 3.6 percent and 86.5 percent.

Across the state, graduates scored 20 perfect 36’s and 102 35’s.

Girls held onto the edge they showed in junior-year testing, scoring 20.3 to boys’ 19.9. Girls performed better in English and reading, while boys were ahead in math and science.

Before the state began testing all juniors, Millard was already giving the test to all students.

As a result, now that all Nebraska students take it as a state assessment, Millard is a bit ahead in efforts to improve scores.

“We are several years into building what we are calling an ACT culture,” said Heather Phipps, Millard’s associate superintendent for educational services.

The rewards of a high score are real: a better chance of admission to the college of your choice and, at many colleges, lucrative scholarships.

The ACT organization analyzed Nebraska’s test scores and found that even a small increase in scores would pay dividends.

The organization found, for instance, that a 0.1 rise in the average composite score for Nebraska’s 2018 graduating class would have resulted in 61 more students enrolling in college.

It would have other consequences as well, according to ACT:

  • 67 more students persisting to year two of college.
  • 49 fewer students needing remedial English.
  • 80 fewer students needing remedial math.
  • 72 more students persisting to year four.
  • 76 more students earning a post-secondary degree within six years.

“This is a test that matters to students,” Phipps said. “A point or two on an ACT can make a serious difference in money for students.”

While the test is only a snapshot, it gauges achievement in core areas: English, math and science, she said.

When Millard first started giving the ACT, teachers took retired ACT exams so they knew what the test looks like and what kind of questions students are being asked, she said. Even middle school teachers have taken it.

The goal was not to teach to the test, she said, but to make sure teachers understood it.

For instance, she said, knowing that academic vocabulary is part of the test.

Millard sophomores take the pre-ACT, she said.

Bryan Botkin, a Millard South senior, scored a 34 on the ACT.

He, too, has experienced the Millard push.

“For every class now, you have to spend at least some time on ACT practice problems,” he said.

The district has also brought in John Baylor, a consultant who provides ACT prep. He emphasizes the rewards of a high score and gives tips such as running around during a test break to get your blood flowing.

Botkin is considering attending college in Nebraska, but he’s considering Colorado, too.

He said his 34 will give him big tuition breaks at UNO and UNL. He wants to study science and get a job that involves travel.

Pokharel said she likes math, science and computer science.

“I’m still looking college-wise,” she said. “I don’t really know where I want to go, maybe somewhere warm.”

Joe covers education for The World-Herald, focusing on pre-kindergarten through high school. Phone: 402-444-1077.

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