Thirteen states paid for 11th-grade students in all public high schools to take the ACT college admission test this year, with several more planning to join them in 2015.
These statewide programs, begun in Illinois and Colorado in 2001, have helped the ACT surpass the College Board's SAT in recent years to become the nation's most widely used admission exam. State officials say the test-everyone policy nudges "It's getting college on the radar for kids who may not have considered it," said Joyce Zurkowski, executive director of assessment for Colorado's Department of Education. "And it's getting kids on the radar of colleges that may not have considered them. It works both ways."
More than 1.84 million U.S. students in the high school class of 2014 took the ACT, according to data released Wednesday, up nearly 3 percent from the previous class. Several hundred thousand were tested on school days at state expense. The average composite score was 21.0 on a 36-point scale, compared with 20.9 the year before. [For a state-by-state breakdown of participation and scores, follow this link.]
Students who register on their own take the test on Saturdays. In the coming school year, they will pay a fee of $38 for the exam that covers English, mathematics, reading and science, plus $16.50 if they want an optional writing assessment. States that contract with the ACT will pay a reduced rate: $34 per student for the core test, or $49 for the version with writing. That can add up to millions of dollars a year.
Maryland and Virginia do not fund college admission testing statewide. But the District of Columbia last year began a program that enables students to take the SAT free in public high schools. The SAT is the leading test in the three jurisdictions, but the ACT is gaining ground. Public schools in Prince George's County, Maryland, this year provided SAT testing for 11th-graders.
The College Board, a nonprofit organization in New York that oversees the SAT, also has teamed with Delaware, Idaho and Maine for state-funded testing. It plans to release SAT scores and participation rates for the class of 2014 in early fall. About 1.5 million U.S. students in the class of 2013 took the SAT. A retooled version of the SAT will debut in 2016.
ACT Inc., a nonprofit organization in Iowa that oversees the ACT, has developed a much more extensive network of state partnerships. Illinois and Colorado launched ACT initiatives in 2001 as the standardized testing movement was accelerating in public schools.
They were followed, according to the ACT, by Kentucky, Michigan and Wyoming in 2007; North Dakota and Tennessee in 2009; North Carolina in 2012; Hawaii, Louisiana and Montana in 2013; and Alabama and Utah this year.
Next year, five states are planning to follow suit: Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada and Wisconsin.
Illinois is shifting its ACT program somewhat as it prepares for new tests aligned with the Common Core state standards in math and English language arts. It will fund the ACT next year for school systems that choose to administer it, according to a spokeswoman for the state's board of education. Arkansas has a similar arrangement.
The ACT's state network has grown on the theory that the test serves a dual purpose: It can give officials a readout on school performance, and it can help individual students apply to college.
"It's very shrewd, quiet marketing," said Bob Schaeffer, a spokesman for FairTest, a group skeptical of college admission testing. Schaeffer said the ACT has connected in statehouses with a pitch for comprehensive testing that strikes many lawmakers as "very reasonable" because so many students take admission tests. But he said a growing number of colleges do not require applicants to submit test scores.
ACT President Jon Erickson said the testing organization is seeking to fill a need. "We responded to what states were asking for," he said. "We didn't cook this up in the back room and then push it down people's throats."
Initially, Erickson said, some within the ACT had concerns about publicly funded initiatives for a test traditionally marketed to individual consumers. States want to serve as many students as possible, providing special accommodations to those who need them. Colleges, though, want guarantees that testing standards will be upheld. Erickson said the ACT is able to meet both demands.
Michael Muenks, coordinator of curriculum and assessment for Missouri's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said statewide ACT testing of 11th-graders will begin in April. He said the initiative is popular in a state where three-quarters of graduating seniors have taken the ACT. Now Missouri will have more leverage to get the other quarter thinking about college, he said. "Our concern was, who are we missing?"
One sobering effect of universal testing: It exposes disparities in student achievement. Average scores drop when states assess every student, which forces officials to explain the declines. The challenge then is to turn scores around.
"Our ACT scores have improved," said Ken Draut, associate commissioner for assessment and accountability in Kentucky's Department of Education. "They're going up. But they're not going up in a stellar fashion. Our gaps are very much like you see across the nation. And they're significant."