Sebring: College Entrance Exam Benefits Iowa’s Diverse Student Body

The following is a guest editorial by Superintendent Nancy Sebring. It was originally published in the Sunday, January 29, 2012 edition of the Des Moines Register and headlined “We need to recognize that rural and urban schools differ.” The editorial was part of a series of guest opinions on the Governor’s education reform proposal:

Iowa is a different state than it was during Terry Branstad’s first terms as governor. Any plan for school reform in Iowa must first consider the changing faces of Iowa children.

For example, in Des Moines today students are more likely to be black or brown than white, more likely to be poor than middle class, and one in six speak a language other than English as their first language. What works in relatively homogenous, rural districts doesn’t always work in diverse, urban ones. That principle needs to be incorporated into the way Iowa schools are regulated and reformed.

One aspect of the governor’s blueprint that will benefit our diverse student body is making a college entrance exam mandatory for all high school juniors. Since 2009, all regent institutions in Iowa require an ACT score as part of the application for admission. For low income students, first generation college-goers and/or immigrants, this requirement can create a barrier that may close the door to a college education. Requiring all juniors to take the test (free of charge) begins the application process early with the support of school counselors, teachers and administrators.

After four years of administering the ACT to all juniors in Des Moines, the benefits to students have become evident. For example, enrollment in Advanced Placement and other college preparatory courses has increased dramatically. Students who otherwise may not have considered college are learning they have what it takes. Colleges and universities open a dialogue with students encouraging them to be college-ready and begin considering career options. Students see the test as having a direct and positive impact on their futures.

Not all students will, or should, go to college, but every student must be adequately prepared for some post-secondary education. The old-school vocational ed programs no longer exist. They have been replaced by “career and technical” programs requiring critical thinking skills, mathematical reasoning and higher levels of reading comprehension.

Whatever short-term hit Iowa takes in the ACT rankings by expanding its pool of test-takers will inevitably be offset by an improved quality of life that will result for all Iowans from better schools.

The governor is right in expanding an innovation that’s worked in Des Moines to a statewide scale.

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