Section dropped from ACT may affect high school students

The elimination of the mandatory ACT Writing Test in Illinois high schools may not affect student admission to SIU, but students interested in other universities may need to take the exam twice.

After the Illinois State Board of Education decided in 2011 to not offer the writing component of the 2012 ACT in Illinois high schools because of state budget constraints, area guidance counselors are preparing 11th graders for what this change will mean to them.

Students will now have to take the exam a second time in order to complete the writing portion and acquire a writing score, which is  required by some institutions for admission.

While the change may have little impact on SIU because it does not require a writing score from applicants, the writing portion’s cancellation will take away a method high schools use to critique students.

Toby Misner, guidance director at Marion High School, said he recommends all university-bound students take the exam a second time independently.

He said the change limits data the school uses to evaluate students, and thus affects how well the school can prepare them for college.

“It helps guide student class choices,” he said. “It gives them a good idea of what school is good for them.”

Similar to Marion High School, the test change may also affect Murphysboro High School.

Leah Varvel, a guidance counselor at Murphysboro High School, said students were previously given an exam called the PLATO Exam, which gauges students’ writing ability, and the ACT with a writing portion but now the school will have only one exam to compare class writing performance to previous years.

“It’s one more data point we won’t be able to look at,” she said.

Katharine Suski, director of SIU admissions, said the university won’t experience any drastic changes because a writing score was never needed for admission.

“It really doesn’t affect us at all here,” she said.

Michael Molino, chair of the English department, said he has researched ways the English department could use the writing scores to compare students’ success in English courses.

“I was hoping ACT scores plus other factors could, in the future, be used in making these decisions,” he said

Molino said the ACT writing score does not factor into a student’s placement in English courses, but he studied years of student grade data from English 101 along with ACT writing scores but found no correlation between the two and student success.

Although Molino said ACT scores can be predictive of success in other areas of academia, writing doesn’t seem to be one of them.

The university’s use of a student’s high school writing assessment may not be useful even if it were required, Molino said, because of issues in “knowledge transfer” from class to class.

“It’s surprising how frequently students were taught everything dutifully but then they just simply don’t take it and put it into place the next time they take the class,” he said. “And that’s always difficult to know the difference because writing isn’t just about skills.”

Molino said English instructors can encourage students to use resources such as the Writing Center, instructor’s office hours or new online materials through some textbooks, but the focus of  all help is student improvement, not writing skill judgement.

“The goal is to try and take students wherever they are and move them forward as best we can,” he said.

While students who are entering SIU may move forward in writing-based curriculum regardless of whether they have taken the ACT Writing Test, Misner said high school students who choose to take the test again with a writing component may gain practice in test-taking and could improve their overall ACT score the second time.

To help decide if a student is prepared for university writing, Marion High School may use alternative ways to assess writing such as writing samples, teacher recommendations and honors programs, Misner said. Improving students’ writing has recently become a focus of the school, he said.

“The past few years, a lot of our English courses have become even more writing centered,” he said.

Misner said the school chose to focus on writing in English courses because test scores had been low.


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