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High school one of 8 statewide taking part in ACT pilot program


Taking tests is rarely fun, but for some high school kids, scoring well on the ACT is the boost they need to jump start a college career.

Sidney High School is one of eight school districts across the state of Nebraska participating in a pilot program in which 100 percent of students take the ACT. Nationally only about 54 percent of kids participate in the test. It usually isn't required for high school, but ACT scores are necessary for most college applications in the Midwest.

Schools in the eastern and central part of the state participating in the program include Columbus, South Sioux City, Hastings and Lincoln Public Schools. Participants in the panhandle are Alliance, Gering, Scottsbluff and Sidney.

School officials don't yet know whether or not the program will continue after the three year pilot ends.

"We haven't really received any direction as yet as to whether it will continue as the state test for 11th graders, being the ACT replacing NeSA, or if it will continue in some other variation," Principal Chris Arent said.

NeSA is the Nebraska standardized test for elementary, middle and high school students. In Sidney 11th graders in the pilot take both NeSA and the ACT.

The junior class takes the ACT every spring. The pilot program started with the class of 2013 and will end with the class of 2015.

Arent doesn't anticipate that taking both NeSA and the ACT in the same year will add any stress to 11th graders.

"I don't think it does because a good portion of our juniors take the ACT anyway," Arent said. "If anything, I think it maybe relieves a little of the stress because the state pays for the ACT right now, as being a part of the pilot."

Those not taking part in the pilot program would have to pay a fee to take the test.

Arent believes that the pilot program has been beneficial to the students.

"I think there's a couple different reasons for that," he said.

When he writes recommendation letters, or when students fill out college applications, they are almost always asked for ACT scores, not NeSA scores.

"I never write down a NeSA score," Arent said. "I always include ACT or SAT."

Taking the ACT gives students who may be on the fence about going to college the extra encouragement it takes to decide to attend, if they receive a good score. It also might push those considering a two year institution to go to a university instead.

"It gives some of them a boost of confidence to see the score that they do get," Arent said. "That they can do it."

One Sidney student was looking into a two year degree in massage therapy, but after receiving a much higher than expected ACT score is now considering obtaining a nursing degree at a four year institution.

"Her scores will probably allow her to get the highest level of scholarship at that school, to where she's not gonna have to pay for anything," Arent said. "I think that's a tremendous accomplishment for a young lady that six months ago was thinking two year massage therapy."

This could be one student that might have skipped taking the test if the school didn't require all students to take it.

"Hopefully a little bit of motivation for students to do well is the ACT is a big part of their college admissions process," Arent said.

Although most students who take the test nationally are already looking toward college, some of the local students who take it aren't. Sidney still only scored slightly lower than the national averages in english, math and science and above the national average in reading this year. Sidney also scored higher overall than Columbus, Gering, Hastings, Lincoln and Scottsbluff. Information was not available for the other two schools participating in the pilot program.

"I think it speaks volumes about our students and their efforts," Arent said. "That they do take the test seriously. Quite honestly, part of the problem with NeSA sometimes is motivation for 11th graders."

Because the NeSA test has no effect on grades, sometimes high school students don't try very hard. These kids want to know what's in it for them, Arent said.

Students are more motivated to do well on the ACT because the scores will affect college admissions.

Arent also attributes Sidney's scores to its teachers.

"I know our teachers work very hard on the benchmarks that ACT provides," Arent said.

Encouragement from parents is also a big factor in how well students do, Arent added.

Those not in the pilot program usually have to take the ACT on a college campus, which can be a somewhat alien environment to high school kids.

"In terms of what's best for our students, having them take it in their own classrooms with their own students, with their own equipment in an environment that they're familiar with, I think that's a big advantage as well," Arent said.

Some students might be uncomfortable taking the test in unfamiliar surroundings, causing lower scores. Arent is pleased at the moment with how well the students are doing, but is always looking to improve.

"Certainly that's not all we're geared toward," Arent said. "But at the same time the standards are pretty rigorous and we're not where we wanna be yet. We wanna strive to be better."

Arent would like to see the program continue.

"Personally for me, I would support continuing doing the 100 percent of our testing, but certainly that decision will be made at the board level," he said.

Taking the test could also open up the possibility for some students to receive scholarships that they otherwise wouldn't.

"We have several students that now have changed their thought process about college, in a positive way," Arent said. "They see they can do it, that they are ready for it, that they have a certain skill level that would be conducive to going to college."


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