Schools consider test fee amid budget worries
SPRINGFIELD – As they juggle school-reform demands with budget cuts, state education officials are considering retaining a traditional college-readiness test for high school juniors but passing the cost along to school districts and possibly the students’ families.
The move would be just one cost-cutting possibility after Illinois schools have seen close to $1 billion in cuts since 2009, and as educators warn of more drastic cuts when revenues fall if lawmakers decide not to extend a temporary income tax hike set to expire at the end of this year.
State board officials estimate it will cost $14 million for all high school juniors to take the ACT test next year, which they want to keep even though it is scheduled to be phased out with the implementation of other exams. But they are considering providing the test free only to low-income students and requiring other families to shoulder the $52.50 cost next year.
“That’s one option we’ll have to consider if the funding situation doesn’t go our way,” State Superintendent of Education Christopher Koch told The Associated Press.
How to fund testing is one crucial component of the current state budget debate, as lawmakers grapple with whether to let the state’s income tax increase roll back as scheduled from its current 5 percent to 3.75 percent in January, and what to do with the available state funds at hand. Implementing a new set of state-mandated exams is already making the state testing budget balloon.
By keeping the ACT and adding the new exams at the elementary and high school levels, the cost of state testing would total $54 million next year, double this year’s $27 million.
“The ACT is one thing that parents and students want,” said State Rep. Robert Pritchard of Hinckley, the House Republican spokesman on education funding. He suggested pinching state funding from other programs in order to pay for the test. “There are lots [of programs] we can’t afford right now,” he said.
The possibility of a new testing fee also is not sitting well with some parents.
“To me that’s a cop-out,” said Gary Percy, the father of two teenage daughters at Elgin District high schools. “The state really shouldn’t be passing the buck like that.”
Under new reforms, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of College and Careers (PARCC) tests will be used across the state’s 860 school districts next year, replacing the ACT as a state-mandated test for high school juniors. But the transition to the new test is problematic, as the PARCC tests haven’t yet been accepted by colleges as an approved entrance exam.
Nearly 143,000 high school juniors across the state took the ACT last year, state report card data shows. Currently, the ACT is given free in schools as part of two-day testing in April to measure college readiness, a graduation requirement from the state since 2002.
“My kids always took it as a practice,” Donna Moore, a Springfield mother of seven children ages 24 to 9, said of the state-paid ACT. “And then they would go and take the ACT and try to raise their scores and we’d for pay it.”
Many college-bound students take the exam separately out of school — for an existing fee — and use their scores on school applications, or to practice for the school-issued exam.
The PARCC tests are linked to Common Core standards adopted by a majority of states across the country. The newer tests, which measure critical thinking and problem solving, are designed to give a more accurate reflection of what students are learning in the classroom.
But officials acknowledge that the transition to a new method poses problems.
“I do think it’s the right direction, but at the same time, we feel we’d like to keep the ACT close by,” Koch said. “I think we need to see how this new tests works and ... check (students’) performance against the ACT and make decisions on it when we have good information.”
At Township High School District 214 in Chicago’s northwest suburbs, Superintendent David Schuler said he has concerns that not providing the test for free to all students could ultimately take away an instrument that encourages students to think about college.
“If we would have to fund the ACT ourselves, we would have to have some really challenging conversations,” he said. “That test is an opportunity to change people’s lives by allowing people to dream.”