One relatively inexpensive item in the $17.8 billion budget approved Tuesday by the Senate may provide more long-term benefits to the state than almost any other provision of the massive two-year spending plan.
The Senate budget includes funding to cover the cost of administering the ACT college entrance exam to all high school juniors in the state. A bill introduced by Sen. Dan Kelly, R-Springfield, would require all juniors in the state to take the ACT. Under Kelly’s proposal, the ACT would be added to the Commonwealth Accountability Testing System, which measures student achievement and provides information on the performance of individual schools.
Kelly’s bill is designed to deal with two of the most persistent and perplexing problems in the state’s education system. “Not enough kids are going to college and not enough kids are going prepared,” Kelly said.
Kentucky has one of the lowest college-going rates in the nation. Efforts to erase that higher education deficit have been hampered by academic weaknesses at the high school level.
More than a third of Kentucky high school graduates require remedial help in math when they enter college, according to the state Council on Postsecondary Education. The students and the state split the $24 million annual cost of remediation.
A number of education officials believe that requiring all high school juniors to take the ACT will force needed changes in the high school curriculum.
Fred Bassett, the superintendent of the Beechwood Independent district in northern Kentucky, told a reporter that the state needs to adopt a more rigorous, college-prep curriculum. “We have a bunch of students who are not successful going to college because they’re not prepared coming out of high school,” Bassett said. “This (Kelly’s) bill has the potential to really shake up the direction of education in Kentucky and refocus it on preparing students for college.”
The state’s current testing and accountability system has no real bearing on the future of college-bound students. Scores on the CATS test aren’t considered in college admissions decisions, and they can’t be used in national comparisons of student achievement.
ACT scores are widely considered to be a reliable predictor of student performance in college. That’s why many colleges and universities use the ACT in making decisions on admissions.
It’s clear that education officials need to put more emphasis on preparing high school students for college. Mandating that all high school juniors take the ACT — and including the scores in the statewide accountability program — will put positive pressure on students, teachers and administrators to boost achievement to the level necessary for most high school graduates to succeed in college.
Illinois and Colorado tried this approach to improving student readiness for college, and it worked.
The percentage of students in Colorado achieving a composite score of 18 and above on the ACT rose significantly after the state imposed the ACT requirement. Not surprisingly, Illinois’ average ACT score declined in the first year after the state required all students to take the college entrance exam. However, the state’s overall average began to rise in the second year after the mandate was imposed. College-prep students in Illinois score well above the national average on the ACT.
If the ACT bill becomes law, the state should be able to recoup the cost of administering the test by reducing costly remediation at the college level.
But the social and economic value of using the ACT to strengthen the high school curriculum should far exceed administration costs. College graduates earn far more money, and contribute more to the growth of the economy, than their less-educated peers.
Kelly’s bill has gained the unanimous approval of the Senate. But the bill’s future reportedly is in doubt because members of the House have attached an unrelated measure on school bullying to it. The House should put partisan gamesmanship aside and give a ringing endorsement to this important effort to raise the state’s educational level.