Critics were ready with the charge that we need to fix this “broken system” when South Carolina’s ACT scores came out for the class of 2016: In the first year that all juniors took the test, the composite average dropped from 21.4 to 18.5 and the percentage of students meeting the benchmarks in all four tested areas dropped from 23 percent to 14 percent.
While it is true that we are not where we want to be on college entrance assessments for all students, we need to put these results into the proper perspective in order to improve. What does it really mean to ensure that students graduate from high school college and career ready? In the words of the late Paul Harvey, it is time to consider the rest of the story.
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Only 26 percent of students across the nation meet ACT’s benchmarks in all four tested areas — and in many states, only those who plan to go to college take the test. South Carolina tested all high school juniors, with no distinction between students who had taken the coursework that best prepares them for a college entrance exam and those who had not. For example, ACT recommends that students should complete Algebra 2 and English 3 prior to the exam, but many S.C. students don’t take Algebra 2 until the senior year if at all.
Colleges have long recognized that students are not equally strong in all content areas. A student may miss the ACT benchmark in one subject but far exceed it in another subject. Such students could have a respectable ACT composite score and go to college to study a career field that aligns with their strengths or interests. To suggest that the system is “failing” or “broken” because high percentages of students do not meet the benchmark in every one of the four subjects is a gross misuse of the data.
South Carolina’s ACT scores need to improve, but these latest scores are down this year because we started testing all juniors in 2015. Average scores will be lower anytime a test is administered to all students rather than just those who are college-bound. North Carolina saw a drop in ACT composite scores from 21.9 to 18.7 in its first year of all-student testing, in 2013. North Carolina’s composite rose to 19.1 this year, and South Carolina anticipates similar improvement.
Let’s consider the positives in this year’s ACT data. First, 1,369 more students met the ACT benchmarks in all four areas than in 2015. Second, many students came within two points of meeting the benchmarks. Research shows that if these students retake the ACT, their scores are likely to go up. This type of information focuses us on finding solutions instead of simply pointing out problems.
In 2015, 45,281 seniors graduated in South Carolina, and 32,039 (70.8 percent) reported that they were admitted to a four-year college or two-year college that fall. It is clear that S.C. graduates are being accepted to college at a rate much higher than you would expect from the ACT benchmarks.
South Carolina is moving into a new era of accountability, where the focus is on meeting the state’s profile of the South Carolina graduate and ensuring college and career readiness. To accompany this, we need a system that values multiple measures of college and career readiness.
College readiness might be determined by ACT or SAT, an Accuplacer or Compass two-year college placement test, an ASVAB military readiness assessment, or rigorous, college-credit-earning course work such advance placement, International Baccalaureate or dual credit. Career readiness might be determined by a WorkKeys assessment of “silver” or higher, completion of career programs and industry credentials that lead to strong job placements. Using multiple measures allows us to customize our teaching for individual student strengths, needs and goals and to customize our focus on ensuring that graduates are prepared.
For the benefit of our state, let’s not label students or schools as failing based on one single way to measure their preparation. If we can instead focus on all the pathways available for all students to succeed, we can rewrite the rest of our story.
Dr. Quinn is deputy state education superintendent for innovation and effectiveness; contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.