University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

The Universal ACT in Arkansas — Connecting School Accountability with Student Postsecondary Success

In The View from the OEP on February 20, 2018 at 3:40 pm

Next Tuesday is ACT Day in Arkansas!

This is the third year that all Arkansas public school juniors are being given the opportunity to take the ACT at their home school, during a regular school day, for free.

While it’s not unusual for students to take tests while at school, Arkansas is one of a small but growing number of states (currently, about 13) that offer all students free and accessible opportunities to sit for College Entrance Exams.  The ACT, of course, is a meaningful test for students and schools.  It is meaningful for students because it is a college entrance exam required for admission to virtually all selective colleges in the US.  It is meaningful for schools because it is a part of how school quality is being measured.

This, folks, is one of those cases where accountability is well designed — all of the incentives are pointed in a similar (and an appropriate) direction! The ACT is a rare school standardized assessment that truly matters for the students; thus, students are incentivized to take the exam seriously and show what they truly know in the four areas tested.

Moreover, in the Arkansas testing regime, the outcome of this assessment matters for schools, so school leaders have the incentive to help kids prepare for this exam. Indeed, at least some high schools in Arkansas are offering ACT-prep as an elective course for high school students. It seems to us that all high schools should jump on board. This is the best sort of “teaching to the test.” ACT-prep would involve reviews of mathematical concepts, the development of strategies for high-speed comprehension of challenging texts, the implementation of rules for writing and grammar that would improve the future writing of students, and practice in analyzing graphs and tables. Each of these skills are useful on the ACT exam and beyond!

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On the OEP Blog, we do like to celebrate the accomplishments of the schools and school policymakers in the Natural State. However, if there’s one thing we like more than sharing accomplishments, it’s talking about research & evidence. Therefore, we are especially happy to celebrate Arkansas’s policy to offer free ACT for all students, because recent research highlights just how big a difference universal testing can make for students, especially low-income students who might not self-select to take the ACT.

The research, by Joshua Hyman, examined the effects of the universal ACT policy on public high school students in Michigan.  The ACT was required of juniors in the Michigan public schools for ten years, increasing the share of Michigan’s low-income high school students taking a college entrance exam from 35 percent to nearly 99 percent. You might remember that we highlighted Michigan’s score increases in our blog last year. Beyond Michigan, Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery looked at national data and found that more than half of the most talented low-income students did not even apply to a competitive college, despite the fact that they were qualified. Thus, interventions that help uncover talented potential college applicants are much needed! Of course, this ACT intervention won’t matter much for the high-achieving students with full AP-courseloads — they were taking college entrance exams anyway. This also won’t matter much for students who are absolutely certain they do not want to go to college.

However, perhaps the key beneficiaries of this type of program will be high-ability low-income students (the students that teachers had not yet identified as academically talented). In Arkansas, each Spring, hundreds of students across the state will be pleasantly surprised when their ACT test results indicate that they are not only “college material”, but in fact very competitive for lucrative scholarships! Of course, this will not happen on its own — school counselors across the state will have to be diligent and on the lookout for these students who receive these “surprisingly” good scores to help them take the next steps. Programs such as the Rogers Honors Academy might serve as good examples.

To further applaud our leaders, it is worth noting that this is not the only way the ADE is supporting ACT-test-taking, nor the only example of Arkansas increase access to important exams. Currently, the ADE is promoting its NoLimits campaign, which distributes information about the ACT, encourages students to that kids take the exams more than once, and more widely shares information about fee waivers for low-income students. Moreover, for the past 15 years or so, Arkansas has offered free AP exams and this has led to increased participation in high-level AP coursework from under-represented groups of students.

Can all of this make a difference? In Michigan, Hyman found that the number of college-ready low-income students taking the ACT increased by 50% after the universal testing program was implemented. As a result of this policy, more low-income students have been heading off to college each Fall. Let’s hope we have the same good fortune in Arkansas!

Pencils ready?  Begin!





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