Upcoming changes to the ACT, one of two well-known college entrance exams, will likely benefit students and may help level the playing field between low-income and more affluent students, according to KIPP New Orleans Schools Managing Director of High Schools Chris Bostock.

The changes, which begin with the September 2020 exam, will allow students to combine their best scores from multiple attempts across the exam’s four parts — English, math, reading, and science. Students will be allowed to retake individual subject tests, instead of sitting for the entire four-part exam again, as was required in the past.

“Given the stamina that’s required” to take the exam all at once, Bostock said this should ease pressure for students. “Kids tended to do less well on the later portions of the exam.”

The Lens contacted a handful of high schools about the new ACT system. KIPP New Orleans Schools, the largest charter operator in the city, agreed to help explain the changes and how they may affect students.

The changes will allow students to retake portion they want to improve. And with a new scoring method the company is calling “superscoring” they can combine their best subject scores from multiple attempts. 

“That’s going to allow our students to put the best of their four scores together,” Bostock said. “[Colleges] are only going to see their best attempts.”

Not only can students combine their best scores, but, Bostock said, should a student only need to improve on one subject, they can just retake that single subject exam.

“It’s actually going to save them money as well,” he said. “We think that this makes it more accessible to families too.”

The exam currently costs $52, or $68 with the optional writing section. The New York Times reported ACT officials said they would charge less for the individual section retests but have not yet advertised a price. Ed Colby, a spokesperson for the organization that produces the test, told The Lens in an email that those rates will be announced “as we get closer to the start of the 2020-2021 school year.”

KIPP runs seven schools at eight sites in New Orleans, including two high schools that have student populations of 88 percent and 92 percent considered economically disadvantaged. That’s slightly higher than the 84.8 percent of students in the city who are considered economically disadvantaged. Statewide, that number is 69.8 percent.

KIPP New Orleans Schools is working to adapt to the changes while continuing to focus on college-prep courses, Bostock said. The ACT has become more ingrained in Louisiana high schools since 2013 when the state started requiring all juniors to take it. The scores are also used in the state’s accountability system for high schools.

The state is still researching whether or not it will account for any of the changes when calculating state school ratings, Department of Education spokeswoman Sydni Dunn said. Performance on an annual ACT makes up about a quarter of high school’s state ratings. 

Students will still initially take ACT’s four-part exam. But now, to try to improve their composite score, they can retake individual subject tests, instead of sitting for the entire four-part exam again, as was required in the past. 

Asked how the charter group is adapting, Bostock said they’re still working on it. 

“This is something we’re still sorting out,” he said. “Partly we do a lot of subject-based teaching and tutoring when students are underperforming in a certain area.”

Some think the changes may benefit wealthier students who can retake subjects over and over. 

Bostock still thinks the changes will benefit KIPP New Orleans’ students. 

“This is leveling the playing field by removing barriers to retaking the test,” he said. 

College prep

As the charter group navigates ACT changes it is still working on its core mission of preparing students for college. We asked Bostock how colleges may view ACT scores in light of the new setup.

“I think that’s a little bit tougher to predict,” Bostock said. “The landscape of college admissions has been shifting as well. Many schools are moving to test-optional admissions.”

Bostock thinks the changes will help students, but he said the charter group is still focused on providing quality college-prep courses. Last year, 43,000 Louisiana high school students took the exam, which is measured on a 36-point scale. The statewide average composite score was 18.9 and the average score in Orleans Parish was 18. At KIPP Renaissance, now called Frederick Douglass High School, the average score was 18.1. Data for KIPP’s other high school was not reported, possibly because the school only served 9th-11th grade students last year.

“Even though this is important for parents to understand how the ACT works in general, it’s still not the most important thing on a students admission paperwork,” Bostock said. “It’s still the rigor of the students’ coursework.”

That’s according to the National Association of College Admission Counselors, he said. 

“What they say, overwhelmingly, is students grades in college prep course is the most important thing,” he said. “Tests like the ACT are number four, which is why we focus on KIPP is making sure we have those courses available.”
The ACT changes will be introduced with the September 2020 administration of the exam.

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned to New Orleans in the fall of 2014 after covering education for the St. Cloud Times in Minnesota. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with majors in journalism and social welfare and a concentration in educational policy studies.