On April 23 every high school junior in the state of Alabama took the ACT free of charge as a part of a sweeping change to the way the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) measures student learning.

The ACT, which is now used as a college entrance exam in all 50 states, is replacing the Alabama High School Graduation Exam, but doesn’t place the same pressures on students or teachers.

“It’s not required for graduation and students don’t have to make a certain score to get a diploma,” Rena Philips, supervisor of marketing and partnerships with the Mobile County school system said. “However, it’s still a high-stakes test and we’re hoping they’ll take it seriously.”

Graduation rates will no longer hinge upon whether students can pass the AHSGE, but will instead be determined by students’ individual grades. For the past few years, graduation rates have been calculated using a four-year cohort rate, which tracks the number of the students who enter high school in the ninth grade and graduate on time as a senior.

An additional fifth-year rate is calculated for students who require an extra year or semester to complete high school. Last year Mobile County increased its graduation rate to 75 percent, which is up from 70 percent in 2012.

Martha Peek, superintendent of the Mobile County Public School System said there are several benefits to giving the test to every junior.

“It’s important that all of our students have the exposure of taking the ACT,” she said. “Some students don’t necessarily have the skills to go forward on a two-year or four-year college track, but we hope that by taking this test, all of our students can recognize their full potential and that we can motivate them to move in that direction if they have that ability.”

Peek said giving the test to juniors also gives the system a chance to evaluate students’ learning tracks and further address individual strengths and weakness heading into their senior year. Juniors took all five parts of the ACT — English, science, mathematics, reading comprehension and writing.

The ACT costs $52.50 per student, but students who qualify for free or reduced lunch are given two waivers to take the test for free.

The most recent state-required test will not affect those waivers, and students who qualify can still take the test two more times without being charged.

The ALSDE has budgeted $2.7 million for this year’s ACT test — funds that were created through the elimination of old tests like the AHSGE.

Most college graduates remember taking the ACT at least once, but the non-profit testing company has expanded in recent years and now offers multiple testing options.

Alabama is first state to fully integrate ACT tests at every grade level, which has set up a very consistent testing program that begins in the third grade. That includes the traditional (American College Testing) for high school students and the ACT Aspire, which is taking the place of the ARMT Plus in grades 3-8.

Students will take the ACT Aspire at the beginning of May.

MCPSS will be the first district in the state to give that test entirely online.

“Before, the entire system would have to shut down for a week or two because of testing,” Phillips said. “This year we have a testing window and we can give the test anytime during that span.”

Philips said the flexible schedule allows classes to take the test when it’s convenient for teachers and their lesson plans. Like the ACT, Aspire measures each school’s and the district’s accountability, which is education jargon for how well students are learning.

In 2010, Alabama adopted College and Career Ready Standards, which the ACT Aspire is set up to test.

“Because the Aspire is aligned with the ACT and with Common Core, it can tell us in the third or fifth grade whether a student is on the right track,” Philips said. “It’s also very detailed. The results can tell you the current predicted path of a student and break down each subject skill by percentage points.”

The ALSDE has fully bought in to the ACT as a means of testing college readiness, but other educators around the country aren’t so sure. A study published in February by William Hiss, a former Dean of Admissions for Bates College, suggested high scores on tests like the ACT and SAT might not be as strong an indicator of college success as high GPAs throughout an entire high school career.

The study showed only a small difference between students who had taken standardized entrance exams and those who hadn’t — a .05 percent difference in college GPA and .6 percent difference in graduation rate.

However, standardized testing is still a very large part of the college process.

There are only 850 testing optional colleges in the United States, but that is still the minority of the nearly 2,300 four-year universities. The vast majority of Alabama colleges require a baseline ACT score for admission, and those scores also determine a student’s eligibility to receive certain scholarships.

Regardless, the ALSDE wants all students to take the test whether they’re thinking about going to college or not.

“Our College and Career Ready Standards use real life problems that apply to each standard, and they’re much more contextual than they used to be,” said ALSDE spokesperson Malissa Valdez-Hubert. “It matches well with the ACT, which is also modeled after those standards. It’s the capstone of that learning.”

Hubert said the state is also hoping the increased rigor of the new standards will spur a rise in GPAs, retention rates and scores on the ACT.