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States With ACT Mandate See Minority Performance on the Rise

Greybull is a small high school nestled among the gray-brown buttes of northwestern Wyoming. As in five other states, juniors take the ACT test, not for college entry but to see how they perform and how curriculum might be improved.

“We do watch the scores, and we do make changes in curriculum based on them,” says principal Mark Fritz, who adds that Wyoming has used the ACT as an assessment tool since 2005. “For example, we noted a problem in expository writing because of the scores and we worked to correct it.”

Fritz has noted another trend — minorities tend to do better on the test when it becomes a routine. “We had 12 Hispanic students in the 11th grade and they all did better (than the Hispanics in the previous class).”

Using the six states as a base, academics are trying to assess how using the ACT test affects students and schools. Data is incomplete, but trends include improved performance by African-American or Hispanic students who generally score lower than Whites or Asian-Americans. Some believe that more students tend to go to college after taking the ACT, but the program’s critics claim that teachers end up teaching the ACT test and not real content.

The ACT, developed by ACT, Inc. in Iowa City, Iowa, measures competence in English, mathematics, scientific reasoning and reading. It came about to help assess the hordes of veterans who returned from World War II with college aspirations. Popular in the Midwest and parts of the South, the ACT competes with the Scholastic Aptitude Test, which dates to the 1920s and tends to be used for college admission on the East and West coasts.

In 2001, ACT pitched the test to state boards of education as a way to assess 11th-grade proficiency. Besides Wyoming, other states with statewide ACT policies are Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and North Dakota.

ACT spokesman Scott Gomer says the test helps school systems identify weaknesses, which allows them to adjust their curriculum or teaching skills.

“We’ve also heard of stories where students who take the test as a competency exam hadn’t thought about going to college but were impressed enough with their scores that they decided to give college a try,” he says. For students heading for technical schools, the ACT can identify strengths and weaknesses that can help with work training, he adds.

Antwan Wilson, assistant superintendent for postsecondary readiness for Denver Public Schools, agrees that the ACT is a useful tool in fixing curricula. The test, he says, has led to “new curriculum being adopted for courses such as U.S. history, physics, biology, algebra, geometry and all of the literacy courses.” ACT has also pushed the district to fine-tune courses to allow for more student investigations and “higher-order thinking functions,” Wilson says.

What’s more, Wilson says, minority students tend to do better on the ACT when it is offered as part of the school program.

Jim McIntosh, director of student assessment at the Colorado Department of Education, agrees. “I see good growth (in scores for minorities) and among Hispanic students, really strong growth.”

For instance, from 2005 to 2009, English scores for African-American 11th-graders in Colorado rose from 14.5 to 15.2 and for Hispanics, they went from 13.6 to 14.3. Math scores went from 15.4 to 16.5 for Black students and from 15 to 16.5 for Hispanics, says McIntosh. ACT tests are scored on a 1 to 36 scale.

Altogether, about 51,000 Colorado juniors take the test, which was first given in 2001. For the same five-year period from 2005 to 2009, Whites and Asian-Americans tended to score about 20 on the ACT’s four sections. They haven’t seen as dramatic a rise in scores as that for Black and Hispanic students.

Not all agree that the ACT program is going well, at least in Illinois. In 2008, the Consortium on Chicago School Research based at the University of Chicago issued a scathing report on the use of the ACT in Chicago public schools, saying that it may hurt students more than it helps.

“Teachers have had a hard time with it because the test is not aligned to any particular course,” says Dr. Elaine Allensworth, consortium co-director and lead author of the 2008 study. “So much is taught that is not on the test at all, and the test makes teachers focus on skill development, not content.”

African-American test scores have improved in the Chicago public school district. Blacks make up 45.1 percent of the district’s student population, according to October 2009 Chicago Public Schools data. However, Allensworth considers the improved scores modest, adding “we need to do a more thorough analysis of what it means to minorities.”

Academics say minorities might perform better on the ACT because by making the test a requirement, it alleviates pressure for students who normally pay $47 to come in on a Saturday morning with No. 2 pencils and sweat out their futures for nearly four hours. And if students know the test will be required when they are in grade school, it doesn’t seem to be a big deal.

“You make it less of a hassle for students by requiring everyone to take the test during the school day,” says Jon Erickson, senior vice president for educational services at ACT, Inc.

McIntosh believes that one reason for the better performance by minorities is that the test “is an expectation.” Students “know in the fourth and fifth grade that there is an ACT test in the 11th grade,” he says.

ACT recently added Cincinnati Public Schools to its base of clients administering the test to assess learning, earning up to $96,000 depending on the number of high school juniors tested, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. Statewide testing for Kentucky’s 11th-graders costs the state $1.4 million, according to state Department of Education spokeswoman Lisa Gross. ACT officials say revenues have grown — in 2009, revenue for ACT Inc. was $250 million, up from $175 million in 2005, according to its 2009 annual report — and they hope to expand the use of its test into more states.

This hoped-for expansion comes at a time when the idea of a single, national competency test is growing legs. A special panel of state school superintendents and governors is proposing a uniform set of academic standards for kindergarten through high school. Using the same test to assess all of the nation’s students may be an important step in establishing national standards since school districts can vary in educational quality.

Some 14 states use the ACT for eighth- and 10th-graders in a way similar to the way it is used for 11th-graders, says Erickson.

The SAT has been used in a similar way for 11th-graders in Maine since 2006, College Board spokeswoman Kathleen Steinberg says. Steinberg could not say if the College Board plans to expand the use of the SAT as a competency test to other states.

In Wyoming, the ACT test has a couple of extra benefits. Greybull High School pays about $1,000 a year to let 11th-graders take practice ACT tests online. If they score 25 points or better and have a strong grade-point average, Fritz says, they could be eligible for a state scholarship program that provides $1,800 per semester for tuition at any Wyoming public college.  

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