Tuesday was an unusual day at Billings Senior High. Virtually every junior spent the morning on the school’s third floor taking the ACT Plus Writing college entrance exam. Those 319 juniors were among about 3,100 at 51 Montana schools taking the exam at the same time in a pilot project designed to better prepare them for college and careers.
Usually, students take the four-hour ACT on Saturday mornings and they have to pay the $49.50 test fee. But on Tuesday, a grant to the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education allowed the tests to be provided without charge to students.
In 2010-2011, only 258 Senior High students took the ACT, and most were in their senior year. Among Montana’s 2011 high school graduates, 60 percent — 6,037 students — took the ACT. In 2010, 58 percent of Montana’s graduates took the ACT.
Next year, the test will be offered free of charge to all 11,000 juniors at all Montana public high schools. OCHE’s $28 million grant for the Montana GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Program) will cover the tests for seven years.
The grant will allow Montana educators to assess the costs and benefits of the testing.
“By testing all students, the path to college becomes more equitable and is viewed as a cultural expectation in Montana,” said Sylvia Moore, deputy commissioner at OCHE.
Denise Juneau, state superintendent of public instruction, asked the 2011 Legislature to fund ACT testing for all juniors, but lawmakers declined. Meanwhile, Wyoming, North Dakota, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, North Carolina, Texas and Tennessee have implemented ACT testing for all juniors.
“Providing the ACT to every junior will give us a complete picture of how well our K-12 public education system is preparing all students for life after high school and allow every Montana junior the opportunity to assess college readiness,” Juneau said. “Access to higher education is critical not only for individuals, but for the future economic success of Montana.”
The ACT tests knowledge of English, reading, math and science with multiple-choice questions that must be answered within time limits. The fifth section requires students to write an essay. The ACT also includes a career interest inventory.
The inventory can help students sort out their career plans and also provides states with data on how future workers’ interests match up with demands for workers.
At Broadview High School, counselor Shawna Yates encouraged her juniors to take the ACT on Tuesday, and all 10 did. Usually, students don’t take the ACT till their senior year, and only about three-fourths ever take it.
Tuesday’s test will provide “a full testing data point that we can look at and see how we are doing as a school,” said Errin Schmitz, assistant principal at Senior.
Testing can show students who weren’t thinking about college the potential for their success, Schmitz said.
“It really opens up that college door for kids,” she said. “It’s a huge opportunity for our kids.”
Students were permitted to opt out of the test and some special-education students did, Schmitz said.
The ACT score is one of the most widely recognized bench marks of academic achievement. Every year, students strive for scores that will help them gain admission to the college of their choice and, in some cases, qualify them for scholarships. Every year, states boast if their student scores are higher than the national average, a status that Montana has long enjoyed.
Testing all students will tell Montanans more about how well schools are doing in educating all students. Testing in the junior year gives schools and students time to work on deficits before graduation. On the other hand, good test results may encourage students who didn’t think they were headed to college to think again.
One of the most encouraging aspects of Tuesday’s pilot project is the partnership between OPI and OCHE. The link between K-12 schools and higher education is critical to ensuring that our children will be ready for college and careers.
Tuesday’s test results will be reported to students in about six weeks.