New statewide program offers ACT exam free for 11th graders, House Speaker & others disapprove

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OKLAHOMA -- "I like to think about public education as not being a competitive sport that produces winners and losers. It's about access."

That's why the state board of education is launching a new pilot program to give every high school junior in the state the option to take the ACT college prep test for free, a test most colleges and universities require for admission.

School districts can opt in for the free testing day.

The exam will be taken during the spring and during school hours, which is good for some students.

"I am a sports person. I play sports, so my availability isn't open on the weekend 'cuz I'm either in band practice, basketball practice, or some other kind of practice," Teria Rogers, a high school student at Millwood, said.

Normally, the ACT  costs about $40. But this program provides an opportunity for students, no matter their family income, to take the college entrance exam for free.

"It's an opportunity for our kids who are not taking the ACT, and we know only about 50 percent of juniors take the ACT," State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said.

Hofmeister said it will cost the state $1.5 million, money that will come from the state education assessments budget.

Currently, 21 other states offer the free ACT program. Hofmeister says those states have the highest performing scores in the nation.

Parents seem to be on board with the idea.

"And who knows if a child might not all of a sudden come out of the woodwork that couldn't have taken that test," Brenda Heigl, PTA president said. "It could be the next Einstein."

So far, this is just a one year program, but education leaders have high hopes for the future.

"If it is well received and positive for students that we would have an opportunity to continue," Hofmeister said.

The State Department will notify districts within several weeks how they can opt-in to the program.

Late Wednesday Oklahoma House Speaker Jeffrey Hickman sent out a statement critical of this new plan.

Only in the past week did legislators learn of the state superintendent’s plan to spend $1.5 million on a new program to pay for all 11th grade students to take the ACT test. I and many members of the House of Representatives have expressed numerous times that the first priority must be the completion of new academic standards for our schools and submission of those new standards to the Legislature as soon as possible. Adoption of our new academic standards should be the starting point to the discussion and future decisions on state testing, not the other way around.

Last session, the House developed House Bill 2088 which would have reduced state-mandated tests and protected the standards development process by ensuring adoption of certain standards before making any further testing decisions. This position has not changed. This new state program announced today takes another instruction day for testing and adds another test, which is contrary to the direction we hoped to take with House Bill 2088.

“With the continued pressure on state revenues from the decline in oil prices and the layoffs of thousands of Oklahomans, every education dollar should be spent to support the classroom, ensuring Oklahoma students are college and career ready. While the goals of this new state program are noble, we have numerous challenges facing us within our existing education programs on which we must stay focused.

Also weighing in State Representative Jason Nelson. He issued the following statement.

 I’ve always believed that financial savings could be found within existing education programs. That Superintendent Hofmeister has identified a surplus of $1.5 million proves this. But how she proposes to spend this extra money signals a shift in her priorities and a lack of appreciation for the looming revenue challenges the state is likely going to face next year.

There are important existing programs like the Reading Sufficiency Act where this money could be better spent. School districts have been requesting more money to help cover the cost of reading programs to help ensure third graders can read well enough to be successful when entering the fourth grade.

To my knowledge, the State Department of Education never requested funds for a voluntary pilot program to pay for college entrance tests for high school students— many of whom may not even be planning to attend college. School districts may have more pressing needs where these limited resources could be better used to enhance student learning.

The most recent numbers I’m aware of show that seventy-five percent of Oklahoma high school students already take the ACT college entrance exam. Starting a new pilot program to do something that is largely already happening is not the highest priority facing education in Oklahoma

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