On the right path

If 100 students took the ACT in 2012, and 138 students took it in 2013, what was the percent increase in students taking the ACT from 2012 to 2013?

While compiling information about county schools’ ACT scores, that was the easiest calculation to make because of the nice round starting number — probably easier than any of the actual math questions on the test.

There was a 38 percent increase in students taking the ACT in Marion County from 2012 to 2013, and no school had a decrease in students taking the test. That’s a good sign. It tells me that taking the ACT is becoming the norm for high school students, which is good for a couple of reasons.

First, how many high school seniors really know what they want to do for the rest of their lives? It’s perfectly OK for someone to decide he or she wants to pursue a career that doesn’t require a college degree. If so, college is a (growing) expense that isn’t needed. But if he or she decides after a few years working that the job isn’t what he or she thought it was, there should be the option to go to college for another career. That person would be much better off having ACT results from high school than trying to take the test years after the knowledge was fresh.

Another benefit of more students taking the ACT is that it gives schools more reason to provide extra test preparation — such as taking class time to work through an example question or two, as some teachers already do; spending a morning taking practice tests, like Marion did last year; or providing lessons on test-taking skills, as Centre plans to do in October. Standardized tests — whether state assessments or the ACT — don’t just measure a student’s knowledge. Intentionally or not, they also reflect students’ test-taking skills. A student who has worked through practice questions and knows how to take the test is likely to get higher scores, opening up more options after high school.

There are a couple of negatives associated with more students taking the ACT, but they’re minor compared to the benefits. First is that the test costs money, and some families would be hard-pressed to spare the fee to take the test. Incidentally, Hillsboro plans to pay for every student to take the ACT once, eliminating that issue.

The other negative is one of perception. When a relatively small portion of students take the ACT, it tends to be the students who plan to go to college and have taken the upper-level courses that result in higher test scores. When a higher percentage of students take the test, it generally leads to lower scores. That can change, if schools focus their attention on preparing students for the test, which could happen if Kansas chooses to use the ACT as its state test for new school standards, or if the state allows school districts to choose which test they use.

— ADAM STEWART

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