It seemed a popular idea: provide free college admission exams, such as the ACT, to all Utah high school students. Such a move would help encourage students to think about attending college and take classes to help them do well on the test, which, in turn, would help them succeed in college.
For too many Utah teenagers, especially those from low-income homes, coming up with at least $34 to take the ACT is just the first hurdle on the road to a college degree. If that were removed, it might seem easier to overcome the next, and then the next.
But the legislation to make free college admission tests a reality did not make it through the final, hectic days of this year's legislative session, although it had broad support.
So, the Utah State Board of Education is rightly considering the next-best thing: changing current rules to make the tests more widely available. Board members will present their plan to an interim education committee meeting in May to encourage legislators to pass the bill during a special session or in next year's regular session.
All high school students should take the ACT or SAT, or both. Many other states foot the bill. SB10 would have eliminated the 10th-grade Utah Basic Skills Competency Test and replaced it with the ACT in the 11th grade. Students in eighth and 10th grades would take the EXPLORE and the PLAN tests, respectively, which are designed to help them determine what subjects they need to focus on to get ready for the admissions test and for college. The cost to the state would be about $700,000 annually.
Without the funding the legislation would have provided, the state board would have to divert funds from UBSCT tests to pay for the PLAN test for 10th-graders and the ACT for all but about 7,000 11th-graders. Presumably, low-income students would be first in line.
Making sure students take the test is the right thing to do. But legislators, educators and parents should realize that widening the pool of test-takers will probably lower the average score for the state. Utah now can boast an average ACT score slightly above the national average, but Utah is competing with those states in which all students take the test.
The average Utah ACT score was 21.8 out of 36 possible points last year. Nationally, the average was 21.1. Utah ranked ninth among all states in which at least half of all students took the test.
Free testing can encourage students to enroll in the courses they need for college, and can make that first step toward a degree a bit easier to take.