ACT Attack! Better Score, Better College, Brighter Future


When it comes to standardized tests, higher scores mean admission into better schools and more scholarship opportunities. It’s a fact every high school student knows. It’s also the lifeblood of the multi-million dollar test prep industry, where shelling out hefty fees for those extra points is common practice.

Doing well on a test like the ACT takes preparedness as well as intelligence. In fact, knowing how to take the exam can be just as important as knowing the answers. This is where test prep companies come in – they show students how to “crack the test” with a slew of strategies, skills, and stamina-building practice tests. But what about students who can’t afford private test prep? Is it fair that when two students of equal intelligence take the test, the one who paid for a Princeton Review course does better?

Hidalgo County Commissioner Eddie Cantu doesn’t think so. That’s why he launched ACT Attack, a program that brings high-quality ACT test prep to local high school students for free. Cantu kicked off ACT Attack by forging a partnership between Sylvan Learning Centers and several local high schools in his community. The Sylvan side of things is run by Susan Valverde, Executive Director of Sylvan’s Rio Grande Valley Region. Together, Valverde and Cantu are working to even the playing field for all students.

Since its launch as a pilot program this January, ACT Attack has helped many students in Hidalgo County. The first “wave” of the program offered 240 class slots to local school districts including PSJA, Hidalgo, Valley View, Sharyland, and McAllen. Participating students received personalized tutoring that fit their schedules as well as their academic needs. “We wanted the program to be convenient and efficient while still offering a real advantage” said Valverde.

ACT Attack is founded on the idea that even a small increase in ACT score can have a big payoff. Take Mario, one of ACT Attack’s first applicants. Mario is a straight-A student with an impressive resume. He recently found out that by earning just two more points on the ACT, he’ll be eligible for a full ride to college. But Mario can’t afford pricey test prep classes, let alone the college tuition he’d owe without the scholarship. He felt stuck. Then, he heard that Sylvan Learning Center – which usually affords its student a three-to-five point increase on their ACT score – was offering free prep courses through a program called ACT Attack. Mario was overjoyed at this chance to secure the future he’d imagined for himself.

Cantu knew that successfully launching ACT Attack would require a team effort. He found a ready partner in Valverde, who has dedicated her career to helping the students in her community reach their academic (and thus college-going) potential. Cantu describes Valverde as an “educational superhero,” and credits much of the program’s success to her efforts.

Valverde in turn lauds the Commissioner for giving more than lip service to the idea of sending more low-income students to college. “He brought all these administrators and school board members from multiple local districts to our first meeting,” Valverde recalls. “I’ve been in this business for 13 years, and I’ve never seen such a successful collaboration.”

That first meeting was a critical launching point for ACT Attack. A corporate representative from Sylvan Learning Center happened to be visiting that day, caught wind of the ACT Attack initiative, and got the ball rolling on a $20,000 donation of services.

$20,000 is a great start, but there is a long way to go before ACT Attack can claim a permanent place in Hidalgo County’s educational landscape. Rest assured, however, that the ACT Attack team is working hard to get there. Valverde and her team of teachers are poring over data from the pilot in an effort to make the program even better. Commissioner Cantu is doing what it takes to find long-term funding so that even more students can benefit from ACT prep courses. Together, they are making sure that all students get the highest ACT scores they can – no matter what their background is.