LSU students stock

LSU students navigate campus between classes, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017, in Baton Rouge, La.

Controversy erupted Thursday at the LSU Board of Supervisors on whether the school should adopt a major change to the ACT, which helps determine college admissions and scholarships.

Jose Aviles,  vice-president for enrollment management, told the board that other SEC schools and others are quickly endorsing the overhaul, which he said may put LSU at a competitive disadvantage.

But some panel members, including former chairman James Williams, said allowing students to re-take sections of the ACT, not the whole test, would most benefits students from wealthy families.

No vote was taken on the issue.

However, the pointed discussion suggests the topic will spark more arguments before any final decision.

The ACT is supposed to help measure how students will fare in college classrooms.

The exam includes math, English, reading and science. Scores range from 1-36.

Retaking the entire test to boost composite scores is common now.

Aviles said 70% percent of students tackle the quiz more than once.

The change announced by ACT officials recently will allow students, starting next year, to re-take specific subjects without having to take the entire exam again.

Doing so could allow students to improve their composite score, which plays a major role in college admissions and scholarship aid.

Aviles said schools nationwide are endorsing the new policy, including the universities of Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and Arkansas; Rice University as well as national schools like Stanford University, the University of Notre Dame, University of Chicago and Vanderbilt University.

"This is not something that is quietly being rolled out," Aviles told the board. "It is coming our way whether we like it or not."

Aviles said one concern is that, if LSU does not go along with the change, it could hamper the school's ability to recruit top-flight students.

Schools that allow students to re-take portions of the ACT, and improve their composite scores, may offer additional financial aid -- $3,000 or more -- because the student scored higher than they did under the current policy.

LSU looks at a student's best score on the ACT, one of three ways used by colleges and universities.

A few schools look at an average of composite scores in reviewing applications.

Others rely on the most recent exam.

Aviles said that, after using a sample of 280,000 students, ACT officials concluded that allowing students to re-take specific sections of the ACT produced scores that were the most predictive of how test-takers would perform as college freshmen.

He also said gains on composite scores were minor, not increases of two, three or four points.

Critics on the board said the change would magnify a current problem – students who can afford to take the test multiple times enjoy a clear advantage over those who cannot.

"If you can actually take the ACT 20 times you are going to have a distinct advantage," said Williams, who lives in New Orleans.

"I think we should be careful," he added. "We shouldn't just do it because everybody else is doing it."

Remy Voisin Starns, a board member from Metairie, raised similar concerns.

"Now they (students) can cherry pick the best scores," Starns said. "The disparity is going to be even greater, it seems to me."

Officials said about 15% percent of students take the ACT more than four times.

Others on the board said the firm that produces the ACT, which is based in Iowa City, Iowa, benefits from students taking tests or portions of tests multiple times.

State education leaders are grappling with the same issue.

Officials of the state Department of Education and the Louisiana Board of Regents are in the early stages of deciding what if any new state policy is needed on the issue.

The change could also have a big impact on students qualifying for the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, or TOPS.

That scholarship is based in part on how students fare on the ACT, and higher scores could boost the pricetag to the state.

Before the new policy was unveiled, ACT officials and Harvard University reviewed the performance of 280,000 first-time, four-year college students.

ACT officials said they were surprised that the new policy was the best predictor of college performance.

They said earlier concerns that allowing student to re-take specific parts of the test would over-estimate their academic preparation were unfounded.

     

 

Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.