State board of education to consider ACT or SAT contract without funds for it

  • Junior Kamron West, center, takes the practice ACT test Wednesday morning at Larkin High School in Elgin.

    Junior Kamron West, center, takes the practice ACT test Wednesday morning at Larkin High School in Elgin. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Students take the practice ACT test at Larkin High School in Elgin.

    Students take the practice ACT test at Larkin High School in Elgin. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 8/18/2015 7:42 PM

Thousands of suburban families could be forced for the first time in more than a decade to pay for high school juniors' college entrance exams next spring, as the state board of education considers whether to provide ACT or SAT without promised funding to do so.

The board is scheduled to vote today whether to enter into a three-year contract for a college-entrance exam at a cost of roughly $20 million over a three-year period. The move comes at a time when exactly how much the state will spend on state tests is an unknown.

 

Illinois is already locked into paying for other, new mandatory state assessments and is grappling with a multibillion-dollar budget hole.

As a result, suburban school districts say they're working on contingency plans, which include preparing to foot the bill if the state doesn't.

"Hopefully it doesn't come to that, but we understand with the current budget situation, that's a possibility," Barrington Area Unit District 220 Superintendent Jeff Arnett said Tuesday. "If the state withdraws the funding, then we would continue to find a way. We believe every student deserves the opportunity to take the college entrance exam at least once at no cost to his or her family."

The ACT was a part of mandatory high school testing from 2001 to 2014, a move partially motivated by state education officials' desire to prompt more disadvantaged students to apply for college. Last academic year, schools shifted to new exams called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers tests, based on Common Core academic standards that have been adopted by the vast majority of states.

The PARCC tests, which focus on English, language arts and math, are given to third- and eighth-graders and high school students. They replace the Illinois Standards Achievement Test and Prairie State Achievement Exam, which included the ACT.

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The state board of education says the new tests are designed to determine how students apply critical thinking to real-world issues, as well as to test their mastery of content.

Still, last year, the state board budgeted an extra $14 million to pay for ACT exams in districts that committed to offer it to all their high school students. The ACT costs between $39.50 and $56.50 per exam, depending on whether students choose to take the writing component.

The estimated cost of a contract with a testing company is $6.8 million per year for a three-year term.

This year, the ongoing battle between GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner and members of the Democratic-led General Assembly over the months-overdue state budget has put a number of decisions on state spending on ice. Rauner did, in late June, sign a portion of the budget that pays for schools' general state aid funds, early childhood and bilingual education. That portion of the budget does not cover assessment fees, however.

Illinois State Board of Education spokesman Matt Vanover said the board is "moving forward" so it "can award a contract to a successful bidder as soon as we receive funding to do so."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

If funding becomes available, Vanover said, that process would allow the state to act in time "to put an assessment in place for the spring."

Rauner's education secretary, Beth Purvis, who attended an education event in Arlington Heights Tuesday, declined to directly comment on whether the state should pay for the ACT. Purvis did, however, suggest that the governor's office was supportive of eliminating barriers to college.

"Whatever entry test is needed, we want to make sure that taking that test is not a barrier to college applications," Purvis said. That is very important to the governor and ISBE."

Like Barrington 220, Northwest Suburban High School District 214 Director of Research and Evaluation Jeffrey Smith said the six-school district is preparing a contingency plan to pay for the test for juniors if the state decides not to pay for it.

"This is certainly an equity issue for us. Our district, we have over 30 percent of our students on free and reduced-priced lunch. And so, certainly, we are very interested in (helping make) college available to all students."

Elgin Area School District U-46 spokeswoman Mary Fergus says the state's second-largest school district is still discussing its options.

"We've been talking about it quite a bit," Fergus said. "We would love for the state to pick up the tab but we also know there are some unknowns in the state budget so we need to make decisions sooner rather than later."

• Daily Herald staff writer Melissa Silverberg contributed to this report.

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