In this photo from our winter 2015 issue on college persistence, Chicago Academy High School college coordinator Andrew Johnson works with students in a college and ACT prep course. Credit: Photo by William Camargo


In 2001, public pressure to ensure that high school graduates are ready for college led  lawmakers to incorporate the ACT college entrance exam into the Illinois’  Prairie State tests for high school juniors.  That year, Chicago Public Schools students scored an average of 17.8, much lower than the Illinois average of 21.7.  An ACT composite score of 21 or higher indicates a student is college-ready, provided each subject test score meets established benchmarks.

CPS tried to boost high school students’ ACT scores by paying for intensive, classroom-based test prep. Research by the Consortium on Chicago School Research showed this effort backfired, likely by taking time away from more challenging classwork. The same study showed that meeting state standards was not enough to prepare students for the rigors of the test. While most CPS freshmen barely met state standards, only those who exceeded state standards did well on the ACT.

See “New tests on deck for high school students,” Catalyst September 2000 and Researchers: ACT ‘not a test you can game,’ July 2008


In 2014, Chicago students scored 18.0 on the ACT, the highest ACT score on record for CPS, while outpacing the state in growth for both reading and math. According to CPS, the data indicate that 11.0 percent of CPS students met college readiness bench marks in all four tests (Reading, Math, Science, and English), up a percentage point from the previous year. The CPS results mirror the national picture for low-income ACT takers. Only 11 percent of the class of 2014’s low-income students who took the ACT met all four readiness benchmarks.

Illinois has since  scrapped the Prairie State exam, including the ACT portion, in favor of a new test called PARCC.

Meanwhile, there is a growing local and national movement to reduce the amount of time devoted to testing and higher education’s reliance on testing for admission.

The national organization Fair Test maintains an updated list of colleges and universities that do not require ACT scores for admission for all or large numbers of students. Some of these schools, including Beloit College and Knox College, are part of the Associated Colleges of the Midwest, which formed a partnership with the Network for College Success to recruit CPS graduates. In 2014, more than 1000 CPS seniors applied to ACM-affiliated schools.

See “Data Central: ACT Composite Scores,” Catalyst Chicago websiteand “College-going inches up from Chicago high schools,” Catalyst July 2011


With the switch to PARCC,  districts were no longer required to offer ACT testing, but could opt in. Last year, all did and the state provided financial assistance to offer students free exams. However, the current state budget crisis could put an end to that freebie. According to the Chicago Tribune, while some affluent districts have already committed to paying the ACT directly for the test, CPS has not.

There is now a bill on Gov. Bruce Rauner’s desk that would require the state to administer a test that would  assess both reading and math skills, and college and career readiness. The bill specifies that Illinois public colleges and universities could accept that test for admission.

Currently, the PARCC  test is not used for college admissions, and there is no funding attached to the bill to pay for a resumption of universal, free ACT testing in Illinois. Meanwhile, the state’s contract with ACT for testing has expired, and the Chicago Tribune also reported that the College Board, makers of the SAT test, will compete with the ACT for Illinois’ business.

Regardless of whether the state chooses to restore free, universal ACT testing, it takes more than a good ACT score to make it through college. Research by the University of Chicago’s Melissa Roderick shows that a high school grade-point average is a stronger predictor of college completion than an ACT test score is.

For low-income, first-generation college students, financial problems, new academic challenges and an unfamiliar environment can all throw up roadblocks to a bachelor’s degree. Students and families also need to know which colleges and universities have the best track records helping them reach the finish line.

Last spring, dozens of high school guidance counselors and related staff received training from the Thrive Chicago collaborative on best practices to help first-generation college students find the right schools. This fall’s college admissions cycle marks the first test of the training.

See “Easing barriers to college completion,” Catalyst February 2015 and“Bills awaiting Rauner’s signature,” Catalyst July 2015

Freelancer Maureen Kelleher's work has appeared in Education Week and the Harvard Education Letter. She was an associate editor with Catalyst Chicago from 1998-2006.

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