11th-graders get food for thought: ACT success can result in scholarships

11th-graders get food for thought: ACT success can result in scholarships
World-Herald News Service

If your high school junior sprints across the lawn or loads her pockets with energy bars Wednesday morning, here’s one possible explanation.

It’s ACT day.

Nearly 22,000 Nebraska public high school juniors will take the ACT Wednesday, free of charge — a major change in state testing.

Teachers and consultants have spent months prepping students for the four-hour exam, helping them brush up on grammar and algebra, and offering advice ranging from running morning sprints — it activates endorphins — to scarfing energy bars.

Some districts are offering a pre-test breakfast (breakfast burrito, yogurt and juice in Papillion-La Vista).

In two to eight weeks, test-takers will receive score reports assessing college readiness.

The scores can be used for college admissions and scholarships, with some colleges awarding big bucks for high scores.

Kyndall Goodwin, 17, a junior at Westside High in Omaha, took the ACT last fall but still expected some jitters taking it again Wednesday.

“Just gotta stay cool and go show what I know,” she said.

By testing all students, state officials hope that some who haven’t considered college will see it as an option. They hope students are more motivated to take a test that can pay off with college scholarships.

Abraham Arzate, 17, a junior at Omaha South, will take it for the first time. He plans to attend college but isn’t sure what to study. He’s “kind of nervous.”

“I hope to do pretty good,” he said. “It probably won’t be good since it’s my first time. Afterward, when I start taking it more, probably my test scores will start going up.”

The ACT predicts how well a student will perform on typical freshman college courses. It replaced the 11th-grade Nebraska State Accountability tests, which measured students’ proficiency on state standards.

State lawmakers last year mandated that all juniors take a college entrance exam, paid for by the state. The State Board of Education sought bids and selected the ACT.

The state is paying $47 per exam for a total annual cost of $1.03 million, about the same as for the state assessments it replaced.

Because the ACT measures college readiness, the release of statewide scores this summer will provide new insight into how well Nebraska prepares students for college.

Nebraskans can expect a drop in the state’s overall composite score — a phenomenon seen in other states that switched to testing all kids.

The drop should be mitigated by the large percentage of Nebraska kids who already take it. Eighty-eight percent of 2016 Nebraska high school graduates took the ACT — one of the highest percentages in the nation.

Now that all juniors will take it, educators and parents will be able to compare Nebraska’s statewide score with 15 other states that test all students.

The timed test takes just over four hours. It has 215 multiple-choice questions on English, reading, math and science plus an essay to gauge writing skills.

Although giving the test to all students could raise awareness of the test with some students, there’s some evidence that people shouldn’t expect a big increase in the college-going rate.

Before adopting the ACT, the state conducted a pilot project giving the ACT to all 11th-graders in 13 public high schools. The study found no significant effect on the overall college-going rate of the students.

ACT spokesman Ed Colby said he did not have data to show that college-going rates increase when states test all students but said he has heard anecdotally about students who were inspired to go to college.

Officials hope students try harder on the ACT than they did on the NeSA, which were used only for state accountability.

“No one got money for the NeSA test,” said Valorie Foy, the state’s director of assessment. “They get money for the ACT test.”

Goodwin, who is interested in pre-vet studies or journalism, said she will try harder on the ACT. She’d like to earn a scholarship “so when I’m older I’m not trying to pay off debt my whole life.”

Ellia Hansen, 17, another Westside junior, said “definitely” some students will be more motivated. She took the ACT last December and again on April 8.

“I’m trying to build momentum,” she said. “I thought that then I could do all my studying and take it in a row.”

She said Westside juniors have been prepping at school with an online course called Odysseyware. Westside teachers also have been prepping students, explaining what’s on each part of the test and offering “tips and tricks,” she said.

“I think a lot of kids don’t expect it to move at such a quick pace, especially for the science and reading,” Hansen said.

Some districts made use of the online ACT prep materials, while others provided online or live prep sessions with John Baylor, who runs a Lincoln-based ACT prep service.

In the past, the Fremont Public Schools provided the John Baylor online program at an affordable cost for interested students. This year, the district paid for Baylor to present in person to all juniors.

Baylor said he spends about 80 percent of his sessions on content reinforcement, 10 percent on test-taking skills and 10 percent on motivation.

Among his tips: Wear comfortable clothes, sprint a couple of 30-yard dashes to fire up the endorphins, eat a high-energy breakfast and avoid sugar and caffeine.

He said Nebraska did the right thing adopting the test.

Bumping a score up a few points can mean thousands of dollars in scholarships, he said.

He tells students the ACT is “the best-paying job a high schooler can have.”

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What to know about the ACT

Test format: Districts have the option of paper-and-pencil or online.

Questions: Total of 215 multiple choice for English, reading, math and science; essay for writing.

Duration of testing period: 8 a.m. to 1:10 p.m.

Actual testing time: 2 hours and 55 minutes, plus 40 minutes for writing.

» Mathematics: 60 questions, 60 minutes

» Reading: 40 questions, 35 minutes

» Science: 40 questions, 35 minutes

» English: 75 questions, 45 minutes

» Writing: 1 prompt, 40 minutes

The ACT is accepted by all U.S. colleges and universities.

Number of states that will administer the exam to 100 percent of juniors this year: 16 including Nebraska

Highest composite score possible: 36

Number of 2016 Nebraska high school graduates who got a perfect score: 20

Statewide average composite score for the class of 2016: 21.4

Minimum composite score for admission to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln or University of Nebraska at Omaha: 20

Minimum score for full-tuition Regents Scholarship: UNO 30, UNL 32

How is the ACT different from the 11th-grade Nebraska State Accountability tests it replaced?

» ACT is a timed test that measures college readiness. It predicts how successful a student will be on college-level coursework.

Students take and complete the test in one day. Because it is used for admissions and scholarships, rigorous security measures ensure the integrity of test scores and the validity of comparisons to scores in other states.

» NeSA was not timed. It measured whether students were proficient on state standards. The NeSA subject tests were taken over multiple days. Security was not as stringent as for the ACT.

Some facts about ACT testing day

Students are to be dismissed if they:

» misuse materials or calculator

» cheat or attempt to cheat

» remove or attempt to take test content

» don’t follow testing rules

» behave inappropriately

» cause a distraction

There must be a minimum of 3 feet between test-takers.

Each room should have two reliable time pieces, a phone, proper lighting, temperature and ventilation, and be free from distractions.

Students are seated randomly. Groups that arrive together are to be seated separately.

Calculators are allowed on the math test, but certain models and features are prohibited. It’s up to the student to know whether their calculator is permitted. No mechanical pencils or ink pens.

Two trained readers score the essay. If the ratings disagree significantly, a third reader will evaluate the essay and resolve the discrepancy.

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