Special Session

Two weeks after lawmakers finished their work, the Minnesota Department of Education is still combing through the education bill passed during the special session to see how the changes ordered by the Legislature will affect statewide assessments. File photo

MANKATO — Local school districts say state testing cuts will force them to reexamine what exactly the ACT means in terms of district success rates.

They must also determine how to pay for the test if they don't receive adequate chunks of what is now a limited supply of state funding. 

In 2013, the Legislature mandated that each of the state's high school juniors take the ACT in April. The state would foot the bill, ensuring equal access. (The test traditionally costs students between $30 and $60 to take.) 

This year, during a special session, lawmakers have taken a step away from that, not only ending the requirement that all juniors take the ACT, but setting aside less money for schools to administer the test. 

Instead of nearly $14 million for the ACTs and other college prep tests, there's $6 million, to be used over the next two years. 

The reversal has left more than one school district shocked. And by the end of school year, their budgets might be feeling the upset, too. 

"If say about 75 percent of our juniors take (the ACT) this year, and I think that's about average, and we don't get funding, that's about $5,000 that's not built into our budget," St. Peter High School Principal Annette Engeldinger said. "... even if it's partially funded, it's going to be a lot." 

A decision reversed 

While the original 2013 legislation left educators scrambling to fit the ACT into busy class schedules, some saw the scores as an exciting new metric. 

The ACTs measure students' "college and career readiness." They replaced the Graduation Required Assessment for Diploma or GRAD tests, providing school districts a glimpse of how prepared their soon-to-be seniors were. 

Some education advocates worried additional testing was not the best way to guarantee career and college readiness, but others saw the ACT scores as a valuable data point. And many school districts took the time to work the tests into their district assessment models. 

"It forces the school district to change focus," Mankato Area Public Schools Supt. Sheri Allen said of the reversal on ACTs. 

Staff worked hard last year to align class schedules, curriculum and more to fit the tests. This year, "it will come back to the measure of the ACT, where that's going to go, what it's going to mean to us," Allen said. 

Mankato Schools staff have long stressed that test scores do not paint a complete picture of how well the school district is faring or how well any one student is doing. They are a "snapshot of the system" and can only show how students did on a particular assessment on a particular day. 

Allen said regardless of how the ACT ends up fitting into district assessments, Mankato Schools will stay true to its road map and educational standards. 

Andy Vander Linden, a guidance counselor from St. Peter, said he had been excited to get career and college readiness data from every student. But last year ended up being bit of a tease, he said. 

"We'll have one year of data on what our juniors are doing, and then just a fragment," he said. 

A piece of the pie

Allen is hopeful that the now limited supply of ACT funding will be equally distributed. But the ACT reimbursement fund is set up to be first-come, first-served, and the Department of Education warns it can't guarantee the money will cover expenses for every district in the state. 

This year the state paid more than $4 million to administer the ACT.  

"Frankly, we're concerned about the funding and how it's going to be divvied up between the schools," Engeldinger said. 

Vander Linden said there are other downsides to the change. Now that students can opt out of the test, he expects the percentage of juniors to take the ACT to drop again. 

"You'll still have a small percentage of students that either don't need the ACT because they're going to a tech or trade college," he said. "And you'll have some that just don't plan on going to college." 

That's always been the case, but he thinks some students may have changed their minds about pursuing a secondary education after getting their scores this year. 

"Some students were hopefully very surprised, and in a good way," he said. 

Others took the test for no other reason than that they had to. 

"We kind of did a rough average of our junior class this year ... and we did at or better than the national average," he said. "There's probably some kids that scored well that never even thought of taking it. And you have some kids on the opposite side, too. They never planned on taking it and put in little or no effort and their scores reflected it." 

Follow @MFPJessicaBies on Twitter. 

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Jessica here, doing some coffee-fueled reporting for the Mankato Free Press. My beat? Education, colleges, LEARNING. Feel free to contact me with questions, comments and story ideas.

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