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Stephanie Snyder

Tennessee to cover ACT retakes for all students, but will it boost college access?

More Tennessee students soon will get the chance to retake the ACT test, which could mean the difference between a college scholarship or not going to college at all.

All of the state’s high school students are supposed to take the ACT at least once, when the state foots the bill in their junior year. But before this year, only students willing to pay the $56 fee took it a second time. This school year, Tennessee will offer vouchers for all students to retake the test their senior year — becoming perhaps the first state to do so.

“Nobody else is doing this,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told members of her testing task force Wednesday in Nashville.

Re-taking the ACT can mean a big boon to scores, which are used to determine if students are “college-ready” and which postsecondary institutions will admit them. It also often determines if students have to take costly remedial courses in community colleges.

Tennessee students who retake the ACT gain almost a full point on average, according to Danielle Mezera, the state’s assistant commissioner for college, career and technical education. (A perfect score for the ACT is a 36.) More than 30 percent of students gain 2 points or more — often just enough to be considered “college ready” and above the minimum to qualify for a HOPE Scholarship to state colleges and universities.

“That’s pretty powerful,” Mezera said. “When you think about your return on investment, this is a good investment for the district, as well as for the student.”

Last year, McQueen’s inaugural testing task force recommended that the state ax ACT tests for younger students and pay for high school retakes instead. This spring, the Tennessee General Assembly passed legislation based on those recommendations, vowing to pay for one retake — “subject to available appropriations.”

“When you think about your return on investment, this is a good investment for the district, as well as for the student.”
Danielle Mazera, assistant state education commissioner

This year, the state will provide districts with vouchers for seniors who have taken the ACT at least once before. Districts will oversee distribution of the vouchers and registration of students for the test. The voucher can only be used for the testing date on Saturday, Oct. 22.

Tennessee is focusing on the ACT for now because it already has a tight partnership with the ACT testing company. This year, for the first time, ACT scores will be used for district accountability, and all districts will need at least 85 percent of juniors to take it.

But Mezera said the state would like to expand options in the future for students who might do better on the SAT, another standardized test widely used for college admissions in the United States. She said the state and local districts should offer any support they can to connect kids with postsecondary opportunities.

“It changes the way in which students think about their future,” she said.

Correction: July 21, 2016. A previous version of this story said that only low-income students qualified for vouchers from the state. All Tennessee seniors who have taken the ACT at least once qualify for the vouchers for the Oct.22 date. Low-income students can also receive vouchers from the ACT for other testing dates.