Minneapolis schools set bar higher with ACT tests for all juniors

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 16, 2013 - 9:58 PM

It’s an effort to convince more students that they’re college material.

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Washburn High School students have been studying for Tuesday’s ACT test to be given to all Minneapolis juniors, a trend pioneered by the Mounds View district.

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Minneapolis school officials fully expect to see a drop in the district’s average score on the ACT college-readiness test this year. And that’s a good thing.

That’s because for the first time, the district on Tuesday will give the ACT to its entire junior class.

The move aims to get students who don’t consider themselves college material to see if they should rethink that.

Minneapolis follows the lead of the Mounds View district, which two years ago pioneered the universal ACT test for juniors in Minnesota. Neither district knows of another doing so, but they appear to be part of a broader trend. Eleven states now give the ACT to each high school student before graduation.

Washburn student Luis Coronel will be taking the free Minneapolis in-school test on Tuesday. He also taken advantage of the district’s offer of a free six-week prep class at his school and a mock test. He’s seen results.

“It helped me save time, and I was able to answer more questions,” Coronel said. He’s aiming for a score of 25 or higher, out of a possible 36. He also knows he can retake the test if he doesn’t hit his goal on the first try. “This class is definitely helping me prepare.”

The universal ACT test for juniors is the newest part of a push by the school board and Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson to upgrade the college and career readiness of graduating students. The push began before Johnson when the district’s foundation helped open college and career centers in each of the seven large high schools. Then last year, the district added a campaign to get families of seniors to fill out federal financial aid forms at a central location with help from professionals. This year that effort was pushed out to high schools. That markedly raised the percentage of families completing the form, district lead counselor Shelly Landry said.

‘Hey, I can do this’

Having all juniors take the ACT is a priority for Johnson. Participation previously ranged from 52 percent at Roosevelt to 99 percent at Henry.

The district’s cost is about $150,000. The biggest winners are expected to be students from low-income or immigrant families, or others without a family history of attending college, Landry said.

Those are the some of the students who have shown the biggest change, said Mounds View Superintendent Dan Hoverman, who started the universal ACT in his district.

“There were a lot of capable kids who may not have had somebody advocating for them,” he said. ACT test day has the highest attendance rate for juniors, suggesting that students are responding. Many repeat the test once or twice.

“They saw that, ‘Hey, I can do this. I can get a better score,’ ” said Hoverman.

More districts may soon follow suit. A state task force on school assessment urged in November that the Legislature replace the high-stakes GRAD tests, which students must pass to graduate, with tests similar to the ACT that start in eighth grade.

Those tests should reflect state college admission standards and predict a student’s chances of college success early enough to help counselors and teachers intervene, the task force said. That idea is moving forward in education bills at the Legislature.

According to the Minnesota Department of Education, 74 percent of students graduating last year took the ACT.

But not everyone is thrilled with the universal ACT. Rob Panning-Miller, a veteran teacher at South High School and a union activist, said implementation has been poor and the test is disrupting classes.

Juniors will be out of their regular classes for four hours for the ACT, and a number of regular classes are being displaced for the test. Panning-Miller noted that the test won’t include the ACT writing test. ACT spokesman Ed Colby said the writing test is required by fewer than 25 percent of colleges. Landry said the writing test would require another 45 minutes and cost $15 more per test.

The free test given by the district will include English, math, reading and science.

A look at test strategy

All high schools offered ACT prep opportunities for the more than 1,700 juniors who are taking the test. Washburn is offering four prep options to its 272 juniors, and Coronel is one of 50 students selected for an hour weekly of test preparation techniques taught by Princeton Review representatives for six weeks, a $300 course that the district pays for.

In a recent class, Princeton Review teacher Andrea Gregory helped them with test strategy: Review the question on a reading passage before reading the passage itself to pinpoint information that’s being sought. She told them that vague answers are often wrong. She advised answering the questions that look easiest first, and that there’s no penalty for guessing on the hardest ones.

The district’s hoped-for outcome is that more students will consider college, and that some who thought they were two-year college material will find that they have the tools to tackle a four-year school.

That’s what Mounds View found with its universal ACT. “We’re very proud of it and we think it’s making a significant difference for our kids,” Hoverman said.

 

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438 Twitter: @brandtstrib

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