Minnesota high schools scramble to meet ACT’s many test-day requirements

Erin Adler, Star Tribune, April 27, 2015


Test anxiety is hitting Minnesota school administrators as they prepare for the first ever statewide American College Test (ACT) for high school juniors.

On April 28, all 64,000 juniors will sit for the exam — a new graduation requirement meant to increase free, in-school access to a test that’s widely required as part of college applications.

But before students can fill in a single bubble on an answer sheet, principals have been problem solving to meet ACT’s many test-day requirements: no public address announcements or bells during the day, desks arranged 3 feet apart, and a mandated start time, regardless of the regular schedule. In many districts, every staff member will be involved in giving the ACT that day.

“The challenge is, what do you do with 800 other students when you need staff to supervise?” said Barb Muckenhirn, Princeton High School principal.

To meet protocol, many high schools have rearranged schedules for thousands of other students — scheduling field trips, giving students “digital day” assignments to do from home, or even canceling school altogether. In Roseville, freshmen, sophomores and seniors will have the day off.

“It is a challenge to justify no school for three grade levels, but there is no logistical alternative,” said Jenny Loeck, principal at Roseville Area High School.

But state officials downplayed concerns.

“I’d say it’s generally going well,” said Kevin McHenry, Minnesota’s assistant commissioner of education. “Anytime you implement a new program … there are always wrinkles to iron out that take some time.”

Challenges for schools

Minnesota schools have been giving standardized tests for decades, including the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCAs). Some schools were already occasional ACT testing sites, usually on weekends.

But this test is different because so many students will be taking it at once on a regular school day.

The Minnesota Department of Education has been sending e-mails about the guidelines to districts since last fall. Still, some school administrators say communication has been confusing throughout the planning process.

At smaller, rural schools, keeping up with all the ACT requirements and deadlines without a staff member dedicated to testing administration has been hard, said P.J. Sutlief, principal of Browerville Public Schools, near Alexandria.

“I’m afraid for [smaller districts] because I think they’re going to drop the ball,” he said.

Most districts are trying to avoid problems by keeping students who aren’t taking the ACT out of the building. Jordan students will visit the James J. Hill House, Fort Snelling and the Minnesota Zoo. Lakeville North seniors have the day off to focus on college plans, while freshmen and sophomores will have online assignments to do from home.

In Minnetonka, freshmen and seniors don’t have school. Sophomores will be taking MCAs or ACT practice tests.

“This has been the talk of the town at high schools,” said Phil Trout, a Minnetonka High School guidance counselor.

Amid the preparations, some are wondering why the state is requiring the college-oriented test at all.

The right test for all?

Looming behind the logistical questions are broader, long-term concerns: Is the ACT the right test for every junior? Why add another test when students must still take the MCAs?

Last year, 76 percent of Minnesota students took the ACT on their own. Parents in Wayzata and Edina have questioned the need to take it again if students like their scores.

McHenry said the state clarified that students can opt out, but districts must still offer the test April 28. The state is paying ACT $13.5 million for two years of testing. Seventeen other states offer the ACT for free and require juniors to take it.

Some rural districts are saying the attempt at a universal assessment isn’t useful, especially for those not headed to college.

“I believe that we ought to re-examine this, that it’s not appropriate for all kids to take the ACT,” said Fred Nolan, executive director of the Minnesota Rural Education Association.

But most administrators said requiring the ACT was a good thing. It helps students who don’t have $54.50 to register. It also encourages students to think about college early, and a good score may lead students to consider college, said Kathe Nickleby, Mahtomedi High School principal.

ACT results are valuable because they affect students’ college plans and futures, said Mary Cecconi, policy director for Parents United for Public Schools, an advocacy group.

“When I mention the ACT, people’s ears perk up and they say, ‘Now that’s a test I could get behind,’ ” Cecconi said.

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