All high school juniors in Millard Public Schools will take the ACT exam next spring free of charge.
Although it will cost the district an extra $62,000, the policy could open doors for students who never considered college, said Mark Feldhausen, associate superintendent for educational services.
The change is likely to dull the district's usual glowing average score, a consequence seen in other states and districts that made similar offers.
But officials said the change is worth it to gauge the district's effectiveness at preparing all students for college and careers.
“We're talking about raising the bar of expectations that students have for themselves, that we have of students and that we have of ourselves as an educational organization,” Feldhausen said.
Millard is not the first in the area to try to get all juniors to take the test.
For two years Ralston has paid for every junior to take the ACT on a single day during school, though not all students have taken the test.
“We're testing every kid we can get into school that day,” said Superintendent Mark Adler.
The district also provides students with test preparation.
He said in a district with significant poverty, it's important to provide kids the opportunity and experience.
More than half of Ralston's students come from low-income families.
Lincoln Public Schools, historically a state leader on the ACT, saw a significant drop in its composite score after the district went to 100 percent participation last year.
Lincoln is one of eight Nebraska school districts that tested their entire junior classes in spring 2012 as part of a state pilot project.
Results of the three-year study could help the Nebraska Board of Education determine whether the ACT could be used in place of the state's 11th-grade standardized tests. Participating districts are Hastings, Alliance, Sidney, South Sioux City, Lincoln, Columbus, Gering and Scottsbluff.
In 2002, Colorado and Illinois became the first states to test all their juniors. This year, nine states did, the others being Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, North Carolina, Tennessee, Utah and Wyoming.
Nebraska tested 84 percent, and Iowa tested 66 percent.
Among Learning Community schools, Ralston and Elkhorn South High Schools saw the highest participation rates this year, at 94 percent.
Archdiocese of Omaha schools reported 97 percent participation.
Feldhausen said Millard officials want to know how all students, not just those on the college track, will perform on the subtests that make up the ACT exam: English, mathematics, reading and science.
Student performance on those will help the district improve instruction, he said.
This year's junior class has about 1,800 students. Between 75 percent and 80 percent of Millard students already take the ACT.
The district will cover the cost for one test. Students will have to pay to take the test additional times.
College- and career-ready doesn't necessarily mean everybody's going to a four- or two-year college, Feldhausen said.
But virtually every student, no matter what career he or she might choose, will require continuing education, he said.
“And there needs to be in place a certain level of proficiency in these critical areas so that that experience of further training, further education, can be one that they can engage in and profit from,” he said.
High ACT scores open doors to scholarships, he said.
For some students, however, taking the test “may get them thinking along the lines of 'Hey, I have a solid set of skills that are transferable to the world of work as well, and that it's something I can build on that maybe I haven't considered before.' ”
In addition to testing all kids, Millard plans to make greater use of the suite of exams associated with the ACT.
The district plans to discontinue the Terra Nova in middle and high school. Eighth- and ninth-graders will take the Explore test. Tenth-graders will continue to take the Plan.
Although the Terra Nova provides good information on student learning, and compares Millard students with national peers, there is no evidence it is aligned with college and career readiness, Feldhausen said.
Meanwhile, the district is taking a step to motivate students on Nebraska's annual standardized tests.
High school transcripts for this year's juniors will indicate whether they met state standards on the Nebraska State Accountability tests.
“That was a way of saying to students 'We value the NeSA assessments. We want you to value the NeSA assessments as well,' ” Feldhausen said.