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School districts stepping up after state stops paying for ACT exams

Shannan Muskopf | flickr
The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education no longer pays for every high school junior in the state to take the ACT college entrance exam.

Thousands of Missouri students over the last three years have accepted a state-funded opportunity to take the ACT college entrance exam for free. After a $4 million cut to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s assessment budget, the state ended the program in July.

Now, school districts in the St. Louis region are finding money to allow students to take the ACT.

Fox School District, for example, didn’t hesitate to come up with $65,000 to pay for the tests, Superintendent Jim Wipke said. Test completion by juniors rose significantly when it was offered for free, he said. In 2015, 515 Fox students took the ACT. In 2016 and 2017, when the district used state funds to make it free, more than 800 students took the exam.

“It can open up different doors for colleges and universities,” Wipke said, adding that higher ACT scores also mean opportunities for more scholarships and financial aid.

The exam costs $46 and is an admissions requirement for many colleges in the Midwest. Students from low-income families can apply for fee waivers. High schoolers often take the exam more than once in an attempt to improve their score.

Hazelwood, Normandy, Pattonville and Kirkwood are among the St. Louis County school districts that will pay thousands of dollars this year for their students to take the test. A Pattonville school administrator said testing fees for the district will be between $12,000 and $18,000. Kirkwood budgeted $20,000 to cover testing costs.

Maplewood Richmond Heights Assistant Superintendent Roxanna Mechem was “a little surprised” when state education officials ended the free exam program. Students at Maplewood Richmond Heights will take the ACT together in February.

“ACT is an important part of our college readiness measures and so that just seemed like something we should continue to do,” Mechem said.

St. Louis Public Schools spokesman Patrick Wallace said the district covered ACT exam costs before the state did so and will continue to cover them.

Superintendents and college advisors contend the exam is valuable to entice students to apply for colleges and universities. Alan Byrd, who serves as the University of Missouri-St. Louis’ vice provost for enrollment, said the test is especially motivating for low-income and first-generation students.

“A lot of students don’t realize that college is a viable option until they actually take the test,” said Byrd, who is also co-chair of St. Louis Graduates, a program that helps students get into and complete college. “For the most part, we know the number of students who take the ACT determines the number of students who will go to college.”

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

Ryan was an education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.