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Placement exams assess students' abilities, needs

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Every January, several hundred eighth-graders in Omaha begin their Catholic high school journey with an experience many of their rural northeast Nebraska counterparts do not share: the placement test.

The tests help sort out abilities and needs of students who enter the high schools from a wide variety of parochial, public or out-of-state educational experiences, said the principals of two of the Omaha area's nine Catholic high schools.

The exams also help place students in the appropriate classes and are used to determine some scholarships, said Chad Holtz, principal of Roncalli Catholic High School, and Laura Hickman, principal at Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart, both in Omaha.

"It's important to know where they are academically," Holtz said. "Otherwise, you don't have a baseline."

By contrast, many students who want to attend one of the eight Catholic high schools in the rural areas of the archdiocese primarily come from the Catholic elementary or public school systems in the same or neighboring communities, making it relatively easy to evaluate each student's preparation, administrators from rural and urban areas said.

This year, placement tests in the Omaha area were held Jan. 14 at each of the Catholic high schools. Students will get their results by early February.

At each school, administrators asked incoming students to take the High School Placement Test, a four-hour exam published by Scholastic Testing Service Inc. of Bensenville, Ill. It covers math, language, reading comprehension, verbal and quantitative skills.

Some schools offer additional tests, such as Roncalli Catholic's optional science and essay questions, Holtz said.

The Omaha Catholic high schools recently began using the same basic test and offering it on the same day. That helps schools trade results if an applicant decides to attend a different school, or it appears he or she would do better in another Catholic school's academic program, Hickman and Holtz said.

"Every school has its own niche," Hickman said. "We want to make sure the right child is matched with the right curriculum."

The need for a placement test in the urban area can be seen in the variety of educational backgrounds students carry into Duchesne Academy, Hickman said. Generally, students come from more than 30 different elementary schools across Nebraska and Iowa, she said.

At Roncalli Catholic, this year's freshman class came from 28 different ZIP codes, Holtz said.

That contrasts with St. Francis High School in Humphrey, which primarily relies on a few feeder schools, said Principal Jennifer Dunn. St. Francis also offers all students a common academic program, with a limited variety of courses for the freshman class, she said.

"When it comes to entrance exams, there's really no reason for it, because we'd place them in the one track anyway," Dunn said.

Wayne Morfeld, principal and president of Scotus Central Catholic Junior/Senior High School in Columbus, said he doesn't offer a placement exam in part because the pool of students feeding into his school is relatively small, compared with Omaha area high schools.

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