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Weary of stagnant ACT scores, Tennessee is giving all its seniors a second chance to test

Tennessee’s quest to raise ACT scores has proven mostly fruitless in recent years, but now its leaders believe they’ve found one strategy that looks promising — paying for students to retake the college entrance exam.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced Thursday that Tennessee is expanding its ACT Senior Retake Day so that its entire Class of 2018 can take advantage of the second chance.

Nearly 26,000 students opted to participate in the state’s first Retake Day last October, with nearly 40 percent of those earning higher scores and about 5 percent raising their ACT composite above 21 — the score necessary to receive the state’s HOPE Scholarship, which provides up to $16,000 toward in-state tuition.

The gains convinced state officials to expand the program this fall so that more than twice as many students — 70,000 in all — can participate.

The move is one way the state is trying to increase its average ACT composite score to 21 by 2020, a major goal under McQueen’s five-year strategic plan unveiled in 2015. Last year, Tennessee’s average was 19.4 out of a possible 36, below the national average of 20.8.

In six years, Tennessee has managed to budge its average composite only four-tenths of a percentage point. And if current trends continue, the state projects that only a fourth of its students will earn a postsecondary certificate, diploma or degree within six years of graduating high school.

The bottleneck is why the state is taking aim at ACT testing as part of its strategies to equip graduates to be ready for college and career.

The state’s ACT Retake Day is a pioneering approach.

“Tennessee is once again a national leader in education as the first state to offer an ACT retake opportunity to all public school seniors,” McQueen said. “By expanding our retake day, we send a strong signal that our state is committed to further increasing access, especially among students who stand to benefit the most from this opportunity.”

The expanded program enables local districts to administer the test automatically to all seniors for a second time in their own schools on two school days — Oct. 3 and Oct. 17. Last fall’s optional retake test was on a Saturday, and students had to sign up and travel to a testing site.

Tennessee has set aside up to $2.5 million to pay for its Retake Day, which cost the state $760,000 last year under the inaugural program. The state already pays for the first ACT testing day statewide, which it’s done since 2009.

Research shows that students are likely to increase their score the second time around, which leads to all kinds of benefits. Higher composite scores make students more competitive for entry into college and increase the likelihood of accessing state and private scholarships. They also could allow students to enroll directly into credit-bearing postsecondary coursework, avoiding non-credit-bearing remedial classes that take students’ time and money and can discourage their progress.

State officials say thousands of students who retook the ACT last fall improved their scores to a level that allowed them to avoid mandatory remediation courses in college. This is significant in Tennessee, because last year over half of students in the state’s community college students required remediation.

The State Department of Education Department has posted additional resources about its program, including an ACT Retake Guide and ACT Toolkit.

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