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Minnesota kids are masters of the ACT test

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Minnesota kids are masters of the ACT test
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It’s no secret, Minnesota students are smart — and they have the test scores to back it up.

The Minnesota Office of Higher Education released data that shows Minnesota students top the nation in ACT scores.


Tested in English, math, reading and science, four-year colleges take those scores into consideration when accepting students.

But how important are those numbers?

According to the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, Minnesota’s composite score of 23.0 was the highest in the nation among the 30 states in which more than half the college-bound students took the test in 2014.

Minnesota has led the nation in average composite ACT scores for nine consecutive years. The national composite score was 21.0.

Starting this year, Minnesota is changing requirements. In years past, students were able to pay and take the test if they wanted to go to college. Now the state is requiring all students take the ACT test, but it’s also to be given free of charge.

“It’s kind of about time,” Frazee-Vergas High School Counselor Theresa Fett said. “We do all this testing that’s completely meaningless. Colleges could care less. We don’t put our MCA scores on transcripts because they don’t care about it. But here you have a test that’s actually going to mean something.”

She said the best part of it being free is it could show a student that never had any intention of attending college that they can do well and get into college.

“It’s awesome,” she said.

The test is $38 for those not taking the extra writing portion, and $54 for the writing test included.

The writing portion is optional and many colleges don’t require that, it depends on the college the student is applying for.

Optional to required

“We really need to relook at how we test kids. We test them to death,” Fett said.

That’s why she feels the new ACT testing requirement is a step in the right direction.

Before taking the ACT, in eighth grade, students take a test called Explore, and in 10th, they take a Plan test. They are both offered through ACT, which helps the student better prepare for the ACT test.

“Explore gives you an idea of what the ACT is like; it’s set up the same way. Same thing with the Plan. It will also tell you what your strengths and weaknesses are so before you take that ACT test, you already have a printout that says, ‘here’s what you need (to study).’”

The downside of everyone being tested is that everyone is taking the test, whether they are college bound or not. So when colleges compare the score from Frazee, where 40-45 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced lunches, to students in Maple Grove, which is known for its wealth, there will likely be some disparities.

“You still have to look at your students and their foundation. Economic disadvantage does seep in sometimes. How those scores are going to be used politically always scares me; it’s misinforming your public.”

Regardless, it’s a step in the right direction, she said.

“I am so happy this is happening because other states have been doing it and I’m glad Minnesota has realized what a benefit it is, because it will not only give a test result that is what colleges want to see, but it’s also going to give teachers the measurement from the eighth grade Explore, 10th grade Plan, 11th grade ACT. I think it’s more valuable than the testing we’ve done for high school.”

What colleges want

Steve Lindgren works as a counselor at the Fergus Falls branch of M State. Before that, he served as a high school counselor, so he’s seen both sides of the test.

Though community and technical colleges don’t require ACT test scores for entrance, they use the scores in a little different method. 

“For the ACTs, we look at it for placement in classes. That’s the important thing for us,” he said. “We look at those math scores and English scores, and we use that to determine how ready they are to get into their certain classes.”

Community and technical colleges have an open door, Lindgren said, they are open to high school graduates; ACTs are not needed.

Four-year colleges have different criteria though, like requiring a certain number on your ACT to get accepted into college.

“It gets what you know, but not how hard you’re going to work,” he said of test scores. “You may have a very high score on your ACT, but if you’re not very motivated, you’re still going to struggle in college because you still have to do the work.”

Fett agrees.

“I think the philosophy of education and of colleges is that your grades are a reflection of your work ethic, and an ACT score is a reflection of your skill,” she said. “That combination gives you an idea of students ready for college.”

Frazee-Vergas Senior Kyliegh Van Den Eykel said she thinks ACT test are a good thing because colleges look at grade point averages, ACT test score and class ranking, and if you’re a good student but not great at the ACT, you still have a good chance at getting into college, and vice versa.

Frazee-Vergas Junior Holly McCamant took her first attempt at the ACT earlier this summer. She plans to take it again to improve her score, even though she scored higher than she had anticipated the first time around.

“I like the score I got but I would also like to get higher,” she said.         “I took it earlier because I wanted more experience. I want to get into some pretty competitive schools, like Georgetown or Stanford.”

Since the test is broken into four parts, students are able to see where their strong suits are and where they need more help. McCamant said she was surprised on how high her math score was — “because math has never really been my strong point” — but for the reading portion, she got much lower on the test than the practice test, which threw her for a loop.

“I know I can get higher in that,” she said. “It just varies. I really think it’s all in how the test is going. Anything can happen in the test.”

Her overall score was two points higher than she had hoped for, so that was a plus.

McCamant plans to retake the ACT test and take the SAT test next year.

Retaking the test

Fett and Lindgren both say they recommend a student taking the ACT test a second time if improving the score one or two points is the difference between scholarships or getting into a particular college.

“If that higher score is going to get you a scholarship, if that higher score is going to get you into that college, yes,” Fett said. “But, if you don’t do anything more like study more, you’re going to get a similar score. You have to do something different if you want to improve that score.”

“A lot of kids put a lot of stress and pressure on themselves and the result is they don’t tend to do very well on the test because their brain locks up,” Lindgren said.

While the test prep won’t necessarily give you the questions and answers that would be on an ACT test, it will help the student move through the test.

In the ACT test, unlike in school, test test-takers aren’t docked for wrong answers. Instead, they earn points for the correct answers, so Lindgren advises students to at least guess at questions when they aren’t sure of the answer.

“You have to move quickly. If you get stuck on one, don’t stop, just keep moving. If you get time, come back. If not, just guess.”

Van Den Eykel also took the test in June when McCamant did. Since she is a senior at Frazee-Vergas this year, she’s quickly retaking the test this fall to improve her score for more scholarship opportunities.

Van Den Eykel, along with McCamant, took the prep class through community education — which was a two day course, three hours each day, and concentrated on each subject students test on — but she skipped out on extra practice tests.

“I should have done more, probably,” she said.

She said she plans to up her study time this fall because otherwise it would be pointless to retake the test because she’d get the same score.

“Since I’ve taken it once though, I kind of know what’s on it, so that’s good. I knew going into the first one that I was going to take it again so I wasn’t sad when it wasn’t the score that I had wanted,” Van Den Eykel said.

“I wish I would have taken it going into my junior year just so I would have seen it and studied more, whereas I waited until the summer before senior year and it’s kind of one of the last times (to take the test).”

She has one more chance this fall by taking the test in September, but then colleges want scores the year before enrollment.

“I just advise people to take it as soon as they can if they don’t mind taking it more than once,” she said.

McCamant said she highly recommends students taking the ACT test at the end of their sophomore year so they can know what to expect and can improve on their score before taking it a second time.

“And also, make sure you get plenty of sleep beforehand,” she said of test-taking day.

Detroit Lakes High School grad Goeun Park took the ACT tests twice — the spring and summer of her junior year. She said it was simply her self-imposed desire to get a better score that drove her to take the test twice.

“I didn’t like my score the first time around. It was all right, but I thought I could do better,” she said. “I didn’t need to take it the second time. I wasn’t pressured, but I felt like if I got a higher score, that would just make me feel more at ease with the whole college application process.”

She studied harder and earned a better score the second time around. She said she studied harder but also had the experience of already taking it once, which helped as well.

“I think I prepared the same way, but I was more familiar with the test the second time around,” she said.

Though she admits to getting stressed about everything, Park said the ACT tests really stressed her out.

“I put a lot of pressure on myself to really do well. It was like a big school test but more important and more stress-worthy in a way,” she said.

“I think it really gets students to think about college, maybe for the first time. Considering that as an option, I think is very important. And obviously if you want to go to a more selective college, those tests are often very necessary.”

ACT versus SAT

Lindgren said the upper Midwest colleges, for the most part, require ACT scores, whereas more of the eastern and western states’ colleges, it’s the SATs they require.

The ACT has four parts to it, but the SATs are more English and math. The SATs are an older test, and the ACTs were developed from the SAT as a reaction to the idea that the SATs didn’t cover enough to predict how well a student was doing coming out of high school, he said.

“I’ve heard it’s much harder and the questions are confusing,” McCamant said of the SAT test. “But I’ll do what I have to do to get into Georgetown.”

The ACT is an achievement test, measuring what a student has learned in school. The SAT is more of an aptitude test, testing reasoning and verbal abilities.

Not a true measure of smarts

Lindgren said that the ACTs can be real stressful, not just because of the test, but what the score can mean to the student. If they get a 22, which is average, average can be “crushing” to some people who thought they were a super smart person all along.

“Well, it doesn’t take into account things like creativity. It doesn’t take into account those types of things, which can also help you be successful. It doesn’t take into account motivation.

Low score on the ACT doesn’t mean you can’t be successful in life. High score on the ACT doesn’t mean you’re going to be successful in life.”

“Do the practice test and don’t stress out,” Park said is her advice to students about to take the ACTs. “People like to say the ACT measures how smart you are, but honestly, it just measures how well you take the ACT.”

Follow Pippi Mayfield on Twitter at @PippiMayfield.