Missouri has ended a two-year experiment in giving every high school junior a shot at the ACT. Even as the Legislature boosts funding for kindergarten through grade 12, a cut to the state testing budget will shift the cost of the college readiness exam to families.
State and local administrators say the all-inclusive test, which was offered during the last two school years, painted a clear picture of the state’s ability to prepare kids for college. ACT scores dropped last year as every student — not just those with college aspirations — sat for the test, which was given during school hours at no cost.
The test is one of several exams, including the SAT, that colleges use to assess students' readiness for higher education. Sitting at least once for these exams is a prerequisite for admission to most colleges.
After a $4 million cut to the state’s assessment budget, students will go back to the longtime status quo, muddying the picture of college readiness in Missouri.
“Having any sort of meaningful data is difficult when it’s sporadic,” said Kevin Goddard, superintendent of the Sarcoxie School District.
Faced with more barriers, fewer Missouri students will take the test. In 2015, the last year of pay-your-way testing, 77 percent took the ACT.
Families will have to foot the bill for the test, which costs $46 or $62.50 with an optional writing test. And on test day — a Saturday — all students must travel to a testing site, sometimes a half-hour away.
In Sarcoxie, where more than half of students receive subsidized lunches, less than half took the test without the state’s help.
Goddard said the shift away from a statewide test will have the greatest impact on students who are better prepared for college than they think and who struggle to take the test on their own.
He said he saw the biggest impacts when “a kid gets a score back that’s like 21, 22, and they might not have taken it otherwise.” A student with those scores would likely be able to gain admission to college.
“Poor kids have benefited from (the statewide test),” said Blaine Henningsen, assistant commissioner for the Office of College and Career Readiness at the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. “They just didn’t perceive themselves as college quality.”
Henningsen said DESE didn’t have a better option than cutting the ACT. Gov. Eric Greitens recommended $4 million less for testing than was requested by DESE, approximately the amount needed to offer the test gratis to all high school juniors.
Other statewide tests that measure high schoolers’ English, math and social studies skills are mandated by state or federal law and could not be eliminated, Henningsen said.
If other states are any example, some districts will choose to pay for the test on their own. Among them is the Webb City School District, one of a handful of districts that had already begun to pay for the test before the state stepped in. Superintendent Tony Rossetti estimates that 90 percent of the students in Webb City were already taking the test.
"My initial reaction is that we will probably continue" paying for the test, he said, likely at a cost of over $10,000 a year. "We made a commitment earlier on to try to test as many kids as possible," he added.
The price tag would be even higher for the larger Joplin district, which has never paid for the ACT. Officials there say they value the test as a tool to help students access college, but they have not yet decided whether to fund it districtwide. "That would be a big undertaking for our district to pay for that," said Brandon Eggleston, Joplin High School principal, adding "every option is open right now."
Ed Colby, director of public relations for ACT, said it is too early to gauge how many Missouri school districts will pay for the test. In the roughly 30 states that do not pay for the test, 1,200 districts chose to assume the cost.
Missouri’s average ACT score dropped by more than 1 percent after the first year of statewide testing, dealing a blow to many districts’ performance reviews from the state education department, which counts the scores in its evaluation of college preparedness.
As participation drops, scores will likely rise, Goddard said. Sarcoxie, with its below-average ACT scores and low test-taking rate, would see an especially large jump.
The ACT college readiness exam costs $46 or $62.50 with an optional writing test. Students who meet one of several low-income thresholds, including eligibility for subsidized lunches, can apply for two free tests through their guidance counselor.