College test for the non-college bound

Toledo Bend timeline out of sync
March 12, 2012
Father Todd: Jesus showed us how to reach, touch, heal the sick
March 12, 2012

Rick Santorum’s recent characterizing of President Barack Obama as a snob for his higher education policies belies a rarity in modern American politics: Republicans and Democrats are sometimes finding common ground on education issues, including the need for rigorous preparation for education after high school.

Case in point: Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal’s education chief, John White (who came highly recommended by Obama’s education secretary), is pushing a plan that includes having all public high school students in the state take the ACT, a college admission test, with scores figuring into the evaluation of schools’ performance.

The idea didn’t originate with White, a relative newcomer to Louisiana. According to state education officials, it was adopted by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education as part of a policy framework approved in January 2010.

But White is solidly behind the idea. It’s an element in the state’s request to the federal government for an exemption from provisions in the 2002 law known as the No Child Left Behind Act.

Like roughly two dozen other states, Louisiana is seeking exemptions from some of the law’s bureaucratic requirements and difficult-to-achieve proficiency goals, such as all students must perform at grade level in reading and math by 2014. The waiver application outlines numerous ways the state intends to boost school performance and measure progress.

Test results, including results from the ACT, play a major role in the waiver application. “The ACT is the best measure of whether students are ready for education and careers after high school,’” White said.

How much it will cost the state to implement mandatory ACT testing isn’t yet clear. And some details about its administration and use as a tool measuring school performance are still being worked out.

College-bound students in Louisiana routinely take the ACT, and they can take it up to a dozen times if they want to improve their score. But, generally, they take it at their own expense. State education officials working on plans to use ACT as a school assessment tool envision giving it once to all high school students at state expense.

So, one issue officials are working on is how the scores of students who take ACT multiple times would be used in figuring a school’s performance score. It’s a crucial detail, since schools whose students are from more affluent families could benefit as the students’ improve their scores by taking the test multiple times.

“It’s a balance of interests,” said Jessica Tucker, policy adviser in the state Department of Education, who noted that the low-income students can apply to have ACT fees waived.

Nobody is under the illusion that all Louisiana students are headed for college. But state officials say rigorous standards benefit all students. BESE voted in 2010 to join more than 40 other states in adopting a set of “Common Core” standards, which the state intends to fully implement in the 2014-15 school year.

“’Common Core’ really raises the bar for our expectations for students and teachers and we feel like the ACT is significantly aligned with Common Core,” Tucker said.

Yes, it’s a college readiness test. But, Tucker said, a minimum average ACT score of 18 is required by many technical schools.

“And, additionally, an 18 reflects a degree of reading, writing and critical thinking skills that we think are valuable in any career or college track and we need to ensure that our students are meeting that bar regardless of whatever post-secondary opportunity they elect,” Tucker said.

Education of some sort beyond a high school diploma is increasingly a necessity for people who want good jobs after high school, Education Department spokeswoman Rene Greer added. “Mechanics, technicians in the 21st century are being expected to have something beyond that high school diploma,” she said.

Kevin McGill covers government and education issues in Louisiana for The Associated Press