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ACT debate: State weighs no longer funding test, but students, colleges still value it

Juniors Willy Ramirez (left) and Cody Wrobel work on solving a math problem on a practice test during an ACT preparation class April 9 at Sandwich High School.
Juniors Willy Ramirez (left) and Cody Wrobel work on solving a math problem on a practice test during an ACT preparation class April 9 at Sandwich High School.

DeKALB – The most important test Dylan Moore can imagine is about two weeks away.

That’s why instead of spending an afternoon outside, he was in a packed classroom in Sandwich High School studying. Moore is about to face the ACT exam, the college readiness exam almost all Illinois high school juniors take annually. 

“It’s the biggest test of your life – other than your driver’s test,” Moore said.

As DeKalb County students cram for the ACT exam in hopes of getting into college, state education officials and legislators debate how to continue funding the test next year when new assessments are implemented. 

Illinois is one of nine states that require 11th-grade students to take the test, which consists of multiple-choice sections in English, reading, math and science, plus an optional writing portion. Schools offer it during the school day as part of the two-day Prairie State Achievement Exam.

More than 140,000 high school juniors took the ACT last year and scored an average of 20.6 out of 36, data from the ACT organization shows.   

Moore hopes to score a 28 to make it easier for college. Like many of his fellow students, he ties his ACT score directly with his chances for success after high school.

However, under new reforms, the ACT requirement will be phased out next year with the Partnership for Assessment of College Readiness exam, known as PARCC, to become the state-mandated test for all juniors. 

Continuing to fund the ACT while offering the PARCC exam is a crucial budget debate, said state Rep. Bob Pritchard, who serves as the House Republican spokesman on the Appropriations for Elementary and Secondary Education Committee. The ACT exam will cost $52.50 a test next year. 

Funding education costs presents a challenge as the state wrestles with letting the 5 percent income tax roll back to 3.75 percent as scheduled Jan. 1. If the state continued to pay for the
ACT, it would cause assessment costs to balloon from $27 million to $54 million, Pritchard said.

Pritchard contended offering the ACT to all high school juniors benefits families because the test is standard for college admissions, but also benefits the state by encouraging more students to go to college. He questioned whether the PARCC exam would offer similar benefits.

“We’ve got an issue in having a test that is valuable to students,” Pritchard said. “I think it has to continue at least for a few years.” 

High school officials say students take the test seriously because they believe it affects their post-high school path.

Sandwich High School Principal Tom Sodaro said about one-third of the junior class attends ACT prep sessions, which happen twice a week. The school stresses the importance of the ACT test to students regardless of their plans after graduating high school.

“You might want to go to college, you might not, but whatever you do, the ACT score is there,” Sodaro said.

Alyssa Hermann, a junior from DeKalb High School, took the ACT in December to prepare for the test her school will administer for free later this month. She did it to know how she would fare on the test and so she could improve her score before applying to colleges. 

“I feel like you have to take it really seriously because all the colleges look at it,” Hermann said.

And colleges do look at it, said Northern Illinois University Associate Director of Admission Chuck Walz. 

NIU looks for a minimum ACT test composite score of 19 with a 2.75 grade point average.  He said both have a similar weight, although admissions will work with students on the borderline of being accepted based on either number.

“It is the only standardized piece we have in the student’s file,” Walz said. “Grades are subjective. We don’t kid ourselves that the ACT is the same for everyone. We know it’s not perfect, but it’s a standard measure.” 

Given the weight of the ACT, Genoa-Kingston School District 424 Superintendent Joe Burgess said his district would make it as easy as possible for the district to continue offering it if the state decided not to fund it. As to whether that would entail paying for the test or offering it to some or all juniors, he didn’t know.

“It seems like the state is devaluing the ACT while colleges see value in it,” Burgess said. “I feel like we’re caught in the middle.”

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