By Emily Younker
In the quiet of summer, just weeks before school starts, Lia Wu is immersed in an ACT/SAT preparatory course.
The junior at Thomas Jefferson Independent Day School in Joplin has yet to take a full college entrance exam, but she can clearly identify how the course is helping in other areas — taking school tests and writing essays, for example.
“It almost helps strengthen how you should think,” she said.
Wu is one of 31 students from Thomas Jefferson and other local schools enrolled in the private school’s college prep course this week. With the start of school right around the corner, students — particularly those who are seniors or who are college-bound — are already buckling down and tackling their test scores.
Nate Kinast, who teaches the course, said his primary goal is to give students exposure to the tests. During the two-week course, students take four complete SATs and review the results.
Kinast said many of his students are trying to raise their scores. The benefit of that, he said, is that it could make the student stand out to a college or university compared with other students who have similar grade point averages and extracurricular activities but lower scores.
“Colleges are processing so many people that they just have to use test scores at some point to filter you. Good or bad, it’s important to them (students) because it’s important to colleges,” he said. “But it’s not a magically-get-into-college button. We’re certainly stressing all kinds of things beyond the test scores. There’s plenty of other things you’re going to need on your resume to get into college.”
Laura McDonald, head of the school, said she tells students that the classes they take in high school and the grades they earn are the most important pieces of applying to college, but ACT or SAT scores would be a close second.
“That’s a way for them (colleges and universities) to compare kids nationally using the same benchmark,” she said.
The scores can be particularly crucial to students who are trying to earn scholarships, which often are based in part on ACT or SAT results, McDonald said.
Most other local schools offer test prep programs in various forms for students. The state accreditation model challenges school districts to get as many students as possible taking a college entrance exam, and a student’s score also is emphasized in college admissions, said Kerry Sachetta, principal of Joplin High School.
“We want their transcript to be the best they can make it: scoring as well as they can on the ACT, taking as challenging a course as you can and scoring the best in those courses,” he said. “It all works together. It’s the whole package when a kid goes to college, but there’s no question the ACT makes a big difference, too.”
Freshman admission requirements at local universities, including Missouri Southern State University and Pittsburg (Kan.) State University, don’t depend solely on a college entrance exam composite score. In fact, it’s only one way in which students can be admitted, as the schools require either a minimum score on the ACT, a certain rank within the graduating high school class or a minimum grade point average.
“We do use test scores heavily for admission purposes,” said Melinda Roelfs, director of admissions at Pittsburg State. “At Pitt State, a student can be admitted based on other criteria, so we don’t admit students based on the ACT alone.”
It’s a different scenario at larger universities, such as the state flagship universities in Columbia, Mo., and Fayetteville, Ark., which require a minimum score on the exams in addition to specific high school course work.
Higher education institutions typically use ACT or SAT scores in a variety of ways, said Derek Skaggs, director of admissions at MSSU.
“Of course, one is admission; another one is scholarships; another one would be placement into freshman entry-level classes,” he said. A student’s subscore on the math portion, for example, would determine into which algebra class a freshman is placed at MSSU, he said.
Students wanting to perform well on college entrance exams should make the most of their high school education, Skaggs said.
“The best preparation for the ACT is taking a very good, strong, rigorous college preparatory curriculum in high school,” consisting of four years of math, English and science classes, he said.
Roelfs said she encourages high school students to take the test early and often.
“Just taking it more than once can help tremendously,” she said. “A one- or two-point increase (on the ACT) can make a big difference in not only admissions decisions, but also scholarships.”
Evadne Rodriguez, a Thomas Jefferson senior, has taken both the ACT and the SAT twice. She said she enrolled in the class this summer to get one last preparatory push before September, which is the last time she will be able to take one of the exams to send the scores to colleges and universities.
The emphasis that is placed on the test, however, is part of a broader academic picture, she said.
“I think from both (high school and college officials), it’s everything put together,” she said. “It’s not just about getting a high score.”
State ACT data
ACT SCORES for the class of 2013 have yet to be released by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, but the scores for last year’s class showed that a higher percentage of students were taking the test, the Globe reported last fall. The Joplin, Webb City and Carl Junction districts in particular boasted higher-than-normal percentages of graduates taking the test, according to the data.
ABOUT 75 PERCENT of the class of 2012 statewide took the test, and the number of graduates taking the ACT has increased by 4.2 percent since 2008, the state department said.