CLINTON — Standardized tests make Sara Nickles uneasy, but the Clinton High School junior plans to go into elementary education.
Meaning like it or not, standardized tests — such as the ACT — won't disappear from her list of things to do anytime soon.
"I get test anxiety," she said. "But the ACT prep course I took helped. At least now I realize what the test will be like."
Nickles is one of more than 206 CHS juniors that next Tuesday will take the ACT, a standardized test for high school achievement and college admissions in the United States.
The Clinton School District leads the way as one of the first school districts in Iowa to ensure most students take the ACT in order to bolster students' belief that they can succeed beyond high school.
While Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad is pushing for students to take the ACT, Iowa does not yet require districts to offer the test or cover the $35 cost. Instead, students must pay for the test themselves and also arrange to take the roughly four-hour long exam on a Saturday at a separate testing location.
A handful of years ago, the Clinton School District decided to cover the costs of the test as well as make all the registration and test day arrangements in order to ease the burden for students and ensure most, if not all, take it.
"The ACT and the FAFSA, the financial-aid piece, are the two biggest road blocks to kids going to college. So we're getting rid of one road block," Sue Schrader, Department Chairwoman of Counseling for Clinton High School, said.
In 2012, Iowa had a 63 percent participation rate for the test. Clinton had an 80 percent participation rate in 2012. Before requiring all juniors take the test, that rate was around 45 percent. The district was the second in the state to have most students in the class of 2012 tested, according to the Condition of Education Report issued by the Iowa Department of Education earlier this year. The only other was the Des Moines School District.
While students like Nickles and her classmates Mitch Leonard and Hunter Genco, who also took the ACT prep course with her, have always had college in mind, not every student feels the ACT is worth the time. The students said having the district support their decision to take the test further encourages their aspirations.
"With the school offering the test, it shows they care," Genco said. "It shows they are willing to put their back on the edge for us to get into college."
One weekday morning in April, students either catch a bus at the high school or drive to the Wild Rose Casino, where a room is provided for the district for free.
Once they reach the casino, the 200 students will turn in cell phones, present a photo ID, have their calculators checked and take an assigned seat. Before the test, high school officials make a seating chart, arrange where test booklets go and what teacher is monitoring which section of students. Students who need extra accommodations take the test at the high school and a handful take the Compass Test, a standardized test for students to attend community college. the district also offers make-up exams for students who are sick the day of the exam.
"Having it here, nobody falls through the cracks," Schrader said. "If our goal as a school is to graduate them college and career ready, they need to have this experience. Even if they don't go off to college, maybe they will eventually. Or maybe they would see, 'Oh, I scored pretty well. Maybe that's something I could do.'"
Once the all-students-take-the-test policy was implemented, the Clinton School District's average composite score fell away from the state average. In 2010, the district had a 21.7 average composite score compared to the state's 22.2. In 2011, the first year of data from the test being given to all Clinton juniors, the district had a 19.1 average. The state's composite average in 2011 was 22.3.
Clinton High School Principal Karinne Tharaldson Jones said she and district leaders knew they would see a dip in ACT scores, but it's a risk they took to benefit the students.
"If all you're worried about is what it looks like your school is versus what it actually is, you're never going to get better. Our school does the right thing for all kids, all the time," Tharaldson Jones said. "Yes, we did have a dip in our scores, but it's still the right thing. You don't want just some kids to take the test. You want all of the kids to have the opportunity to go on. If they don't have the ACT they're not going on. "
With the school district paving the way for students to take the test and prepare for college, officials hope to alleviate some of the pressure navigating a standardized test can cause while also opening doors. Many Clinton students will be the first of their families to go to college, Schrader said.
The Clinton population with a bachelor's degree or higher is 10 percent less than the percentage that attained the same level of education across the state. While nearly 25 percent of Iowans age 25 or older have a bachelor's degree, 15 percent of the Clinton population fits into the same demographic, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
"Giving the test is only one component of modifying a student' s perception about opportunities available to each person upon graduation. We believe in our students and their abilities, we want to provide an opportunity that they had not considered," Clinton Superintendent Deb Olson said.
Some of the other options Olson refers to are college visits, fairs and planning seminars offered by the district.
All of these initiatives play into the district's goal to boost not only students' belief that they can pursue some sort of college education, but the amount of students that actually do.
While 70 to 80 percent of Clinton High School students say they will move on to a college or university, about 36 percent of CHS graduates follow through with at least one year of post-secondary education, nearly the state average, Schrader said.
"I want to see that number go up," she said."How we can fix that from here, I don't know. Once they walk out of those doors, it's kind of hard, but we're trying."
Where we stand The Clinton population with a bachelor's degree or higher is 10 percent less than the percentage that attained the same level of education across the state. While nearly 25 percent of Iowans age 25 or older have a bachelor's degree, 15 percent of the Clinton population fits into the same demographic, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.