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Bold plans to up students' ACT scores

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By Brent Schanding

A small survey conducted by the Spencer Magnet last week seemed to indicate underclassmen don’t feel prepared for the college-entry indicator, known as the ACT. Only one underclassman, in a group of 13 Spencer County High students chosen by random to participate, indicated they felt ready for the test.

“These scores are going to tell me how prepared I am to get into the college I want,” said freshman Charlissa Wakefield, who said on the survey that she felt unprepared for the nationalized test. 

Wakefield plans to study marine biology at the University of North Carolina, where 85 percent of last year’s incoming students scored higher than a 24 on the ACT. One third of UNC freshman scored above 30 on the test.

The average test score of Spencer County juniors last spring was 16.6.

Wakefield indicated she needs more guidance before she takes the ACT. Nearly all others in the survey wrote they needed more opportunities––including prep courses and additional instruction––to succeed on the ACT.

“I have seen looks of horror when some students get their scores back,” SCHS Principal Jocelyn Lyons said of those who take the ACT. “It’s heart breaking.”

After SCHS juniors recently posted the lowest composite results of any district in the region, Lyons is determined to change that.

The first-year principal unveiled an aggressive plan last week to boost ACT scores. SCHS will soon offer a free after-school “Readiness Academy” for students who score below the benchmark in one or more areas on the ACT. Those students will have access to practice tests and other study materials. A number of Saturday classes will also focus on components of the ACT.

Educators also plan to engage parents with several programs and events aimed at boosting their child’s readiness.

In addition to offering ACT booster classes for juniors, Lyons said educators will evaluate the school’s course offerings–especially those which divulge information found on the college-preparatory test.

In 2009, only 27 percent of SCHS students who took the ACT had completed core-level classes that specifically prepared them for the test, according to school data.

“I just want the children to have an opportunity to practice with their skills before they take the test,” Lyons said. “Until our numbers reach the state average, we can assume they’re missing out on opportunities given to other students in the state.”

Last spring, each of the district’s 197 juniors took the ACT, which gauges skills in English, science, math and reading. Those students recorded a composite score of 16.6––nearly a full point lower than last year’s testing group and far lower than averages across the region. The state average is 19.4, while the national average is 21.1. A perfect score on the ACT is 36.

Data provided by the ACT indicated most Spencer County students weren’t prepared for college.

LOWERED

EXPECTATIONS?

While the data irrefutably shows students here are below par, Lyons said interpreting ACT scores is difficult. Kentucky ACT scores have fallen considerably below the national average since 2008, when state lawmakers required all juniors to take the standardized college-entry exam. ACT data from most other states includes only scores from students who choose to take the test––mostly college-bound teens who tend to score better on exams.

Rhode Island students who took the ACT last spring, for example, posted one of the nation’s highest composite scores at 22.8. However, only 10 percent of Rhode Island students took the test, according to information provided by the ACT’s Web site. That’s compared with 100 percent of Kentucky students, many of whom won’t attend college after graduation.

Still, Lyons drew no distinction between the pools of students who take the ACT. Academic expectations have to be the same for high schoolers who choose to attend college––and those who don’t, she said. Discrepancies shown by ACT data add a sense of urgency to the situation, she said.

“There’s a lot of power in being a farmer or mechanic,” Lyons said. “What they need is no different than what the guy going to Duke needs.”

Other problems may exist with interpreting ACT scores, Lyons said, because of “grade inflation.”

One study cited by the ACT indicated academic expectations in America have deflated in the last 30 years. A typical “B-student” in 1979 would likely reflect the skill and knowledge equivalency of today’s  “C-students,” the study found.  That means honor-roll students, expecting to score well on today’s test, are often less prepared and score lower than expected.

But more tellingly, Spencer County Middle students aren’t meeting certain academic benchmarks to prepare them for the ACT. Prepratory tests administered to eighth- and ninth-grade students generally predict how they will perform on the ACT as juniors. Those scores are also lower than average, indicating the district needs to start rigorously prepping its students for the ACT as early as sixth or seventh grade.

WHAT THE SURVEY SHOWED

Most Spencer County students apparently see the importance of the ACT.

All but one in the Magnet’s ACT survey said the test was “important” or “very important.”

Senior Amanda Kimbro, who plans to attend the University of Louisville , said ACT scores indicate the smartness of a student, while senior Stephanie Coulter said the scores reflect a student’s work ethic.

Each of the students surveyed said they plan to attend college or receive some type of workforce training after graduation. 

“I believe that high school is the most important part of life to prepare you for the future,” said Keith Curry, the only freshman in the survey who felt prepared for the ACT.

The next national ACT testing date is Sept. 12.  It will be administered five additional times throughout the school year.