desks school stock classroom

Advocate file photo of school desks.

State education officials said Monday they are grappling with how to handle a new national policy that will allow students to re-take individual sections of the ACT, not the entire test, to boost all-important composite scores.

Whether colleges and TOPS leaders endorse the option are among the questions.

"There is a lot still that we don't know," said Jill Zimmerman, executive director for strategic data, analytics and accountability in the state Department of Education. "There are a lot more unknowns than knowns."

The ACT is supposed to measure college readiness, and scores can help determine college admission and scholarships. 

Allowing students to focus on one or more specific subjects, or essentially re-take the test in parts rather than all at once, could mean improved scores.

"I think it is a great opportunity for students," said Kathy Noel, who chairs the 18-member Accountability Commission, where the issue surfaced. Noel is an educator in DeSoto Parish.

The commission advises the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The exam includes English, math, science and reading.

Results are based on a scale of 1-36.

The latest state results, announced in October, showed that Louisiana is ranked 49th in the nation on the ACT, down from 45th last year.

The composite score was 18.8, down from 19.2 last year and 19.5 the year before.

Those results include both public and private students.

ACT officials announced in October that, beginning in September, 2020, students will be able to retake sections of the test at an ACT test center on national test dates, and possibly more sites eventually.

To do so students will have had to have already taken the entire ACT on a school day through state or district testing.

Students will then be given a "superscore," which calculates their highest possible composite score.

State officials on Monday used the example of a student who initially scores 29 overall, including English, 31; math, 28, reading, 34 and science, 24.

Two months later the same student improves his or her math and science scores, 29 and 28 respectively, after re-taking those subjects only. Five months later the student scores 34 in English and 35 in reading – two more improvements after re-tests solely on English and reading.

Under the new policy, the student's "superscore" would be 32, a significant gain that could pay huge scholarship and college admission dividends.

"The ACT test will remain the same, valid, reliable indicator of student readiness for success in college that it has always been, one that is based on 60 years of research and measures what's taught in the classroom," Suzana Delanghe, ACT chief commercial officer, said in a statement when the change was announced.

"Our research shows that ACT scores for students who take individual section tests are consistent with those earned when they take the entire test," Delanghe said.

"We are simply offering new ways to take the ACT, saving students time and giving them the ability to focus only on subject areas needing improvement."

State education department officials are working with their counterparts at the state Board of Regents and those who oversee the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, or TOPS. That scholarship pays for tuition and other expenses for college students who qualify, and ACT scores help determine eligibility.

Another question is how the new rules would affect all-important school performance scores, which determine annual grades for schools and districts.

The new policy comes at a time when some colleges nationally are eliminating ACT and SAT requirements from their admission criteria amid complaints that students from wealthy homes enjoy a big advantage.

Zimmerman said another challenge for Louisiana educators is equity – whether the new rules would most benefit students who can afford to take parts of the exam multiple times.

A related issue has sparked controversy between the state Board of Regents and LSU leaders over how many students should be admitted if they fail to meet ACT or other academic benchmarks.

There are already differences in how scores are portrayed now.

ACT leaders base national rankings and other results on a student's last composite score. Louisiana officials base theirs on a student's best score.

State education officials often note that Louisiana is one of just 15 states where all students are required to take the ACT. That rule, which took effect in 2013, is aimed at boosting the number of students who qualify for college financial aid.

Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.