Two years ago, the Mounds View school district gave the ACT college entrance exam to all of its juniors. This month, for the first time, all Minneapolis public high school juniors had the opportunity to take the ACT for free. It cost the district $150,000 for some 1,700 students to take the test.
By offering universal ACT, these two local districts have joined a decadelong trend involving thousands of schools in 11 states.
Research from those other states show that it’s a smart move. Making an ACT- or SAT-type test available to all teens boosts the number of kids who apply for college, as well as other postsecondary education options.
Providing pre-ACT evaluations in elementary and middle schools also helps kids and families get an earlier start thinking about and preparing for careers. That’s essential for all youths in a global economy in which some post-high-school training is increasingly necessary to find a good job.
Giving the test also opens opportunity for students from lower-income backgrounds who hadn’t even considered the exam because their families couldn’t afford it.
Yet another benefit: Students and educators can use the tests to improve learning and reduce the need for remedial courses later. Test results can help kids and their teachers zero in on the academic areas where they need improvement if they are to be ready for higher education. In some places, college readiness exams have become the required statewide exam, reducing the number of tests taken by students.
Since 2001, Colorado and Illinois have given the ACT to all public high school students. A 2009 study of those programs by the testing service found increases in academic achievement. In addition, statewide administration of the test improved school workforce planning and informed career-counseling efforts. The number of high school graduates who enrolled in college increased by 8 percent in both states between 2002 and 2004. College enrollment for students of color jumped by 23 percent in Colorado and by 16 percent in Illinois.
In the class of 2011, more students nationwide took the ACT than ever before: 1.6 million, or 49 percent of the class. Participation among students of color has risen dramatically, though troubling gaps in scores persist. But as more disadvantaged students expect to participate and prepare themselves, those disparities will narrow.
Overall, about 75 percent of the juniors in Minneapolis high schools took the assessment this month, ranging from 77 percent at North to 97 percent at Henry.
Readiness for higher education has been a priority for Minneapolis Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson and the school board. Universal ACT is the latest of several steps toward that end. The push began a few years ago when the district’s foundation helped open college and career centers in high schools. Last year, there was a campaign to get families of seniors to fill out federal financial aid forms.
A proposal is moving through the Legislature that would replace the statewide high school graduation test with an ACT/SAT-type exam. The plan was introduced after a state task force on assessments urged the Legislature to replace the current GRAD test with exams similar to ACT that start in eighth grade.
It makes sense to move in that direction statewide. Experience over the past decade demonstrates the benefits for students, families and teachers alike.