As part of mandated state exams for public high school juniors, Illinois' 11th graders have been taking the ACT, a crucial rite of passage for many into the world of higher education, free of charge for more than a decade now.
However, beginning next school year, the popular ACT should no longer be a state-required test covered by taxpayers, the state's top education official said. According to the state school superintendent, Christopher Koch, the college entrance exam would become voluntary instead, with perhaps only low-income students getting to take it for free. However, the onset of added costs as a new battery of mandated tests in Illinois is implemented in the spring of 2015 worries Koch. Juniors spending added hours on lengthy high school exams also worry him.
"I want to be clear that we shouldn't be requiring both," the ACT and the new mandated high school-level exams, Koch told members of the Illinois State Board of Education last week.
A debate even among the usually agreeable state board was ignited by his controversial comments with member Curt Bradshaw, of Naperville, arguing to keep the ACT. Bradshaw believes scores on the new state exams will mean something to educators but not to parents and students.
"What will mean something is what students score on the ACT," Bradshaw said.
Through the spring legislative session, when lawmakers decide how much money to spend on public schools in 2014-15, the debate is certain to continue. To administer the regular four-subject ACT and related exams in 2015, including the ACT writing test and exams in applied math and reading skills, the state board has recommended that $14 million be put into the budget. As Diane Rado of the Chicago Tribune reports, that would be just one part of the budget for mandated exams, which, under the board's recommendation, would total $54 million next school year, doubling what it is now because of the new exams. However, additional federal dollars used on state exams are not included in that figure.
In addition, a decision is yet to be reached on administering the college entrance exam next year, and the future of the free ACT in Illinois remains uncertain, though it has been embedded in the state testing schedule since 2001.
However, because students can use scores from the state-funded ACT test to get into college, the free ACT exams have long been popular with many parents and kids. The results also can be used as a practice test of sorts, to gauge strengths, work on weaknesses and then take the exam again on a national testing date using their own money.
13 states will administer the ACT to all juniors this year – including Illinois – according to Ed Colby, the spokesman for the testing giant. Topping the list of states in terms of the number of graduates who take the exam, Illinois is a major client for the ACT. According to the testing company's data, more than 160,000 students in Illinois' class of 2013 took the ACT – more than any other state.
State records show that to administer the college entrance exams to juniors as well as the ACT precursor tests for younger students, Illinois has paid more than $100 million to the company in recent years.