Enid High School senior Avrielle LeBaron has not been able to take the ACT college admissions test because of cancellations due to COVID-19. Oklahoma public school seniors expected the state to provide the test, but that didn't happen. (Courtesy Avrielle LeBaron )

Oklahoma broke a promise to the class of 2021 so it could save $1.9 million. The cost to those students — in academic opportunities and scholarship dollars — cannot be calculated.

The state made a commitment to provide a college admissions test for free during school hours to all public-school juniors beginning with the 2017 graduating class. Most school districts administer the ACT. A few use the SAT.

Officials said giving the test as part of the school day eliminates any barriers — like cost, transportation, work and family obligations — that can prevent students from taking the test on a Saturday at a national testing site. Testing all juniors also helps educators pinpoint skills gaps that need to be addressed before graduation. 

COVID-19 disrupted all state assessment testing last spring. Officials with the Oklahoma State Department of Education said they planned to use the $1.9 million budgeted for the spring test to provide it this fall when those 37,000 students returned for their senior year.

That changed after the Legislature cut the department’s 2020-21 budget by $78 million, including $5.4 million less for testing.

Rep. Mark McBride, R-Moore, who chairs the House committee on education appropriations, said lawmakers had to cut the department’s testing fund to help pay for a $32 million increase in health insurance for teachers and support staff.  

“We did what we had to do to get the budget to work,” McBride said. 

The Legislature had $237.8 million less to appropriate for 2020-21 than it did a year earlier.

“We knew there would be unmet needs, and this (the ACT) was one of them,” House Minority Leader Emily Virgin said. “But we also knew there would be an infusion of federal relief funds to address those needs.”

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Oklahoma received more than $1.2 billion from the federal CARES Act (for Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security). McBride and Virgin said the state should use some of that to pay for the ACT testing.

“It’s a relatively small amount of money,” said Virgin, D-Norman. “It’s really tragic that we’re failing those seniors.”

After learning the state education department would not pay for the test, the Oklahoma ACT Council wrote Gov. Kevin Stitt in July to request “your consideration for using the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund to do so.” The GEER fund – $39.9 million of the state’s CARES dollars – is designated to meet the needs of students and schools. 

The governor has prioritized the GEER fund “for innovative new programs” and is not considering the council’s request at this time, Charlie Hannema, Stitt’s communications chief, said on Sept. 2.

Among those programs is one that provides $10 million for private school students from low-income families whose attendance is threatened by the financial fallout of COVID-19. House Democrats have called it an inappropriate use of the relief money.

“It’s flat out ridiculous,” said Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, D-Norman. Instead of spending public dollars on private schools, the governor should use them to cover public school needs like paying for the ACT, he said.

“GEER funds should have been used for that. It’s just unfair,” Rosecrants said.

Rep. Chelsey Branham, D-Oklahoma City, who serves on the governor’s legislative advisory group on the distribution of another $1.2 billion in CARES Act funding, said the group was told on Sept. 9 that all funds have been appropriated.

Kristy Hernandez, director of student services at Moore Public Schools and chair of the Oklahoma ACT Council, said school districts and families were counting on the state to provide the in-school free tests.

Individual school districts can purchase the test for their seniors, Hernandez said, but the districtwide testing would cost Moore Public Schools about $60,000. “We don’t have the funds to do that,” she said.

Virgin said it’s not a district’s responsibility to pay for the tests. The state made the decision to use the ACT to measure education outcomes and meet federal assessment requirements, so the state should cover the cost, she said. 

Oklahoma Stands Alone

Oklahoma is the only state forced to cancel spring ACT testing due to COVID-19 that is not providing a makeup opportunity.

Twenty-one states had planned to test juniors in the spring, said Catherine Hofmann, vice president of state services at ACT, the Iowa-based nonprofit that administers the test. 

“Some states were able to fully test this past spring or did summer testing to complete the testing,” Hofmann said. All the others are offering fall testing to those students who now are seniors, she said. 

But Oklahoma students must enroll in one of the Saturday tests administered by ACT and pay for it themselves. 

Saturdays are difficult for Enid High School senior Avrielle LeBaron because she watches her three younger siblings while their parents work. It will cost her $70 because she wants to take the optional writing portion that colleges consider when evaluating applicants. Students who opt out of that part pay $55.

National ACT tests scheduled this month in Enid have been canceled because of a surge in COVID-19 cases. Trying to secure a test has been a challenge for students nationwide.

“I’m scrambling to find a way to take the ACT as soon as possible to meet my college deadlines,” LeBaron said.

She is worried she will lose out to other students if she submits applications for college admission and scholarship dollars without an ACT score.

“I may not be able to get into schools I hope to,” she said. “I’m just waiting nervously for those ACTs to become available again.”

Her first choice is the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where she was born and raised. In-state choices are the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University. All three schools have said freshman applicants for fall 2021 are not required to submit an ACT or SAT test score due to the pandemic.

FairTest reports that more than 1,570 four-year colleges and universities have adopted test-optional policies for fall 2021 admission. But about 30% still require the test score.

ACT warns on its website that not including a score gives admissions officers an incomplete picture and could draw negative attention to students.  

“Access to the ACT and SAT opens up an on-ramp to postsecondary education for all Oklahoma public school students, many of whom might not otherwise consider college to be a possibility.”

— Joy Hofmeister, State Superintendent in 2017

Students, State Missing Data

Losing the free test at school will have a big impact on students, said Denise Lavoie, Enid High School testing coordinator.

“Some of them rely on state testing to pay for the ACT,” Lavoie said. Among Enid 2020 graduates,  57% took the ACT just that one time.

The most recent statewide data show 54% of 2019 graduates took the ACT just once. The year before state testing began, 18% of graduates didn’t take the test at all.

State and district education officials say some students don’t know how smart they are or see their potential until they take the test. The results can determine whether they go to college and what college they attend.

Lavoie said students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch are given waivers to pay for the test, but some parents who lost jobs during the pandemic don’t realize they can apply now that their situation has changed. 

And for some lower-income families that don’t qualify for waivers, paying for the ACT is not a priority, she said.

The test is used for more than college admission. It gives education officials important data for school accountability, said Christy McCreary, executive director of state assessments. 

Not testing the class of 2021 will leave a gap in proficiency data. “We use them to compare students, districts and even states across test years,” McCreary said. 

In the 2019 – the most recent data available – Oklahoma’s, 42,234 graduates had an average ACT composite score of 18.9, in the bottom third of states where 100% of students were tested. 

Many Oklahoma students failed to meet ACT’s College Readiness Benchmark Scores. These are the minimum score needed in a subject area for a student to have a 50 percent chance of obtaining a “B” grade or higher or 75 percent chance of obtaining a “C” or higher in the corresponding college course.

Of Oklahoma’s 2019 graduates, only 15% met all four benchmarks and 46% met zero.

Testing This Year ‘Such a Mess’

Tammy Raydon’s son is a senior at Westmoore High School in south Oklahoma City, where he expected to take the ACT last spring. 

With that opportunity gone, Raydon registered her son for national tests scheduled in June and again in July. “Both were canceled,” she said. “They kept the money and rolled it over to the next test.”

Now he is registered to take the ACT on Saturday, Sept. 19, at Moore High School, just weeks ahead of the Oct. 1 to Feb. 1 window to apply for scholarships and college admission, she said. 

“If they cancel September, then we don’t have that either,” Raydon said. 

Russell Maximus Raydon was given the ACT after his freshman year and scored 23. Now that he has completed advanced placement classes and concurrent college courses, he needs to be retested to get an accurate assessment that will ensure the most scholarship money and admission to his top-choice schools, his mom said.

The University of Central Oklahoma — one of his top three choices — still requires an ACT or SAT score for admission.

ACT reported officials at 21 sites made the call to cancel the July 18 test due to coronavirus concerns. Many of the 1,400 students affected didn’t know until they showed up for the test.

Raydon said she and fellow parents are frustrated by spending days trying to reach someone at ACT, only to get a message that they are overwhelmed because of COVID-19.

“It has been horrendous,” she said. 

She has experienced unanswered calls, promised callbacks that never come, the website being taken down for a week, and being put in a queue for two hours just to get to the new website.

Raydon did receive emails from Bruce Smith, director of state partnerships, acknowledging what families are facing.

“I am so sorry that testing this year has been such a mess and that you and your son have had to deal with it. Preparing for and taking the ACT is stressful enough, so all the other complications just add to it,” he wrote.

Staff writer Trevor Brown contributed to this report.

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