ONLY IN THE WORLD-HERALD
Most kids face the crucible of college entrance exams during their junior or senior year in high school, but Kassidy Vavra is not like most kids.
Kassidy is one of those kids people like to call precocious, brainy or just plain amazing.
The high-achieving Gretna Middle School student who just completed seventh grade took the ACT exam last winter, scoring 22 on the 36-point test, better than most graduating seniors in Nebraska.
Nearly 40,000 U.S. seventh-graders take the ACT each year, typically at the recommendation of a teacher. Experts say testing early carries great benefits for a gifted child, as long as the child and parents have realistic expectations about their score and are willing to pay the fees.
Although participation rates have been steady the past few years, some experts say parents are taking greater interest in early testing as a way to improve scores and increase a child's eligibility for college financial aid.
John Thomsen, a retired middle school teacher who served as a facilitator for high-ability learners for 23 years, said parents used to ask him why their seventh-grader should be taking a test that's usually taken by high school upperclassmen.
“My pat answer was, ‘The more times they take it, the more experience they're going to have taking that particular test,'” said Thomsen.
Students can take the ACT up to 12 times. The early experience will help them when they take the test as juniors and seniors and want to submit those scores to colleges, he said.
Early testing also gives parents a way to hold educators' feet to the fire to ensure they provide a rigorous program for growth of high-achieving kids, he said.
“I used it in my school when I could go to an English teacher who says, ‘Josephine is not doing well in my class.' And I could explain, ‘Well, Josephine may be bored in your class.'”
Educators could then “ramp up” the rigor for that student, said Thomsen, who is now communication coordinator for the Nebraska Association for the Gifted.
Nebraska law requires schools to identify gifted students, but they are not required to provide special programming for them.
The downside could occur when a seventh-grader scores closer to grade level, for instance an ACT score of 12 or 13 out of 36.
That's still a useful measure, Thomsen said. The child has three or four more years to improve that score. It could be discouraging, though, for a child whose expectation was higher.
“All of a sudden, they're asking, ‘Am I dumb?'” Thomsen said.
Experts say parents and teachers can reduce unrealistic expectations by making sure students know they're in for a difficult test not designed for seventh-graders.
Anxiety wasn't a problem for Kassidy, who plays the flute, sings in the church choir, loves to read and, lately, aspires to a career in fashion design. She was eager to take the test to see how she would measure up.
“I was really excited to take it,” she said.
Her school's director of gifted education suggested she take it through a national talent search called the Duke University Talent Identification Program, which is run by the university in Durham, N.C.
Mention a talent search these days, and most people probably envision a competition like “American Idol.”
Duke and other national talent searches are not competitions but programs that identify academically gifted kids at a young age and give them access to classes, camps and scholarships to enhance their education. They are, of course, great marketing tools for the universities, who try to entice these kids to enroll after graduation.
Nebraska and Iowa are among 16 states in the Duke region. Other regional talent searches run by Northwestern and Johns Hopkins Universities and the University of Denver serve other states.
There are some searches not tied to a certain region, such as the Belin-Blank Exceptional Student Talent Search at the University of Iowa. That program is popular with Iowa students — most Council Bluffs Community School District students use it — but also open to students outside the state.
Belin-Blank enrolls a couple of hundred seventh-graders, according to Susan Assouline, the center's associate director.
To participate in the Duke search, kids have to score in at least the 95th percentile on a standardized achievement test.
Parents pay $33 for the ACT or $47 for the SAT, and $30 to Duke. Waivers are available for financial need. Belin-Blank fees are comparable.
Parents don't have to test through a talent search, but few sign up directly with testing services.
Talent searches usually provide a score analysis that compares a child to others in the search at their grade level. They offer enrichment programs to participants — though some are pricey and involve travel.
Duke participants can win mini-scholarships to sample classes at Creighton University and the Kearney, Omaha and Lincoln campuses of the University of Nebraska before they graduate high school.
High scorers are recognized in an annual ceremony.
Creighton awarded six scholarships this year, allowing the students to take a class or enroll in a one-week residential academic program called Ad Astra, said Mary Chase, associate vice president for enrollment.
“Basically, they're immersed in an environment that lets them tap into their potential,” Chase said.
Belin-Blank's highest scorers will be recognized in an October ceremony and can win a $1,000 scholarship should they attend the University of Iowa as a first-time student.
Kassidy's score earned her an invitation to the Duke TIP ceremony held at the University of Nebraska at Omaha this month. She was among 582 who scored high enough to be recognized.
Two Nebraska seventh-graders got a perfect score on at least one section of the test. To put that in perspective, 16 seniors in the 2011 Nebraska graduating class got perfect composite scores on the ACT.
Kassidy's mother, Nicole Vavra, a massage therapist, said she and her husband, Matt, a senior systems engineer, didn't know about the Duke TIP until contacted by the school.
They considered it an honor but didn't push her into testing, Nicole Vavra said.
“It was pretty much all Kassidy's decision,” she said.
Kassidy studied an ACT prep book. She took the test with a group of seventh-graders. She didn't recognize some of the high-level math.
The questions she missed gave her an idea of where she needs to improve next time, she said. “I think it will help me a lot just because I know what to expect next time I take it as a high schooler,” she said.
Her mother is happy to have a snapshot of her daughter's ability.
Jan Dahlgaard, curriculum facilitator for language arts and high-ability learners in the Millard Public Schools, said the scores are useful to teachers.
Between 55 and 65 Millard seventh-graders take the ACT through Duke TIP each year, she said. Some kids participated in the Johns Hopkins search.
A high score might result in letting a middle-schooler test out of certain units, skip material they've already mastered or jump to a higher grade in a particular subject.
“Then when they get into high school, you would start plugging them into the honors classes and into the AP classes as much as possible so they could meet their needs in a more rigorous and stronger field of study,” Dahlgaard said.
Testing young has become a tradition for the Moles family of Cook, Neb., and it appears to be paying off.
Grant Moles, 13, took the ACT last winter through Duke on the recommendation of a counselor at Johnson County Central Middle School in Cook. His score earned him a scholarship to take one university-level course from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln before he graduates high school.
He's the third Moles child of four to test in the seventh grade.
His mother, Shelley, works as a counselor at Johnson County Central High School. His father, Jack Moles, is superintendent of the district.
His older brother and two older sisters are Scott Scholars — recipients of the Walter Scott Jr. Scholarship at the Kiewit Institute in Omaha.
Getting high scores on the ACT or SAT has always been the route to hefty scholarships, Shelley Moles said. College admissions offices may have difficulty comparing transcripts from different schools, because classes don't always carry equal rigor, but scores on the tests are an equalizer, she said.
“I have not got a 36 yet,” Shelley Moles said. “I'm hoping Grant does.”
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