Suzanne Perez Tobias

The average ACT score in Kansas likely will go down this year. Here’s why.

On Wednesday, every public high school junior in Kansas will be able to take the ACT college entrance exam for free.

(That’s assuming the Kansas weather doesn’t hamper with school schedules, in which case the makeup test date is April 2.)

The exam usually is administered on Saturdays and only to students who register in advance and pay a $50 fee, or those who demonstrate economic need and have the fees waived. Wednesday’s statewide test is being financed with additional funding from the Kansas Legislature as part of a new school finance plan.

It’s great that thousands more Kansas students will take the ACT, which gauges readiness for success in college and could provide a more accurate picture of statewide student performance. Some students who may not have considered college may score high enough to compete for scholarships and broaden their post-high-school possibilities.

But parents, elected officials, policy makers and others should be warned: As the number of test-takers increases, the state’s average ACT score will almost certainly go down.

Nebraska, which administered a free statewide ACT for the first time last year, saw its average composite score drop below the national average — from 21.4 in 2017 to 20.1 last year.

Missouri also saw a noticeable drop in the average composite ACT score when it began offering the test for free in 2016. It fell to 20.2 from 21.7 the year before. That state no longer offers the ACT for free after its governor cut assessment funding.

Over the past few years, average scores in Kansas have declined somewhat as more students take the ACT. Even so, the average composite score for Kansas students was 21.6 last year, still above the national average of 20.8.

A perfect score on the ACT is 36.

As has happened in other states, ACT scores are expected to drop as more students take the test. The pool of test-takers will include more students who have not planned or prepared to take it and may not be considering college but end up taking it because it’s free.

In Wichita, the state’s largest school district, about 1,500 students took the ACT last year. The district estimates about 4,000 students will take the test Wednesday.

Gil Alvarez, Wichita’s assistant superintendent for secondary schools, said he and other district officials are “excited to give more students a chance to see where they stand” when it comes to college readiness.

“Do we look at the scores, solely, or do we now know that we have open access for all students, no matter their background?” Alvarez said. “This could give some an opportunity for success they didn’t have before, and to change the trajectory of their own lives.”

Kansas will spend about $2.2 million on the statewide tests, and public schools have spent countless hours planning and preparing for test day. We wish students the best and hope state officials remain focused on the ultimate goal — leveling the playing field for Kansas kids.

Suzanne Perez Tobias is a columnist and member of The Eagle’s editorial board. During her nearly 30 years at the newspaper, she has covered breaking news, education, local government and other topics. An avid reader, Suzanne also oversees The Eagle’s books coverage and coordinates the annual #ReadICT Challenge. She can be reached at 316-268-6567.