Nashville’s conversation on ACT scores is misleading

With all the recent conversation about ACT scores, you would think the facts would be well established, but we keep reading ACT stories that report the same mistakes. Here are the facts.

Even though the average score in Tennessee and in Nashville remain well below what they should be — and what they will be — strong growth is happening. In Nashville, we saw big gains in the ACT this year, bigger gains than Tennessee saw as a whole. In fact, we were one of the top ten districts in the state for growth and earned 5’s—the top score—for value added. On top of that, Metro students averaged an ACT score almost a full point higher than projections.

That is huge news.

Why? These projections were made four years ago when these students were about to enter high school. That means our high school instruction has improved a great deal over the last four years.

  • Projected Mean Score: 17.49
  • Actual Mean Score: 18.43

But it’s still not good enough. We want every student to score a 21 or better on the ACT.

Let’s compare Tennessee’s average ACT score to that of Massachusetts:

  • MA – 24.1 (the highest in the nation)
  • TN – 19.7 (fourth from the bottom in the nation)

Looks pretty dim. But now let’s compare where those scores are coming from in those same two states:

  • MA – A quarter of students tested: Those headed to college who choose to take the ACT (and pay for it, study for it, etc).
  • TN – All students tested on the ACT: Everyone. Like Tennessee, the other states at the bottom of the rankings have universal testing of high schools students.

Are those playing fields level for comparison? No.

There are those who would argue that shouldn’t matter, that scores are too low in Nashville and Tennessee no matter how you look at it.

They are correct.

Every student in Tennessee takes the ACT. It’s not only used to measure our collective achievement, but it also gets them into a college mindset and assesses whether or not they are prepared for college.

That last part is where we have to do better. We have to better prepare our students for college. Anything less is a disservice to students in our schools.

Let’s go over that part again because it’s important.

No one in Metro Schools believes an 18.4 district average is acceptable. No one in Tennessee believes the 19.7 statewide average is acceptable. Anyone who thinks we are resting on the laurels of incremental score growth is wrong.

When you’re talking district-wide transformation, test scores are always the last piece to move – especially ACT scores. That’s because ACT scores measure the accumulated wealth of years of education.

The recurring obsession with ACT numbers does two things: it unfairly compares states with different populations taking the ACT and gives short shrift to the growth in student achievement and the hard work to make that happen.

The real solution is building stronger high school students who turn into stronger graduates. That starts as soon as they enter kindergarten.

Good thing, then, that we now have a district-level executive guiding instruction for K-12 as one, continuous whole. A unified vision for instruction at every grade level means elementary students will be better prepared for middle school. Middle schoolers will come to high school achieving at higher levels. And eleventh graders will score higher on the ACT.

Good thing, then, that we are moving our top experts in instruction into schools, where they can adapt and guide instruction for individual clusters, schools, classrooms and even students.

The transformation of Nashville’s public schools is ongoing and ever evolving. But it’s driven by – and has always been driven by – the same goal: across the board improvement in academic achievement for all students, by any measure.

Is the ACT important? Of course. Colleges use ACT scores for admissions decisions. Educators rely on them to assess how they are doing and how they can better prepare students for graduation.

But is it the end all, be all of the education conversation? No.

What should be the end all, be all of the education conversation? Everything leading up to the ACT.

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2 thoughts on “Nashville’s conversation on ACT scores is misleading

  1. I could not agree with this statement more. I have witnessed much growth in my own child in her first two years of high school. She has taken the ACT every year since the 8th grade, and I she has had growth in her score every year. What more could a parent ask for from a school disctrict? As an involved parent I have done research on this subject. a few important facts:
    1) Only 7 states require ACT by all students, TN is one of the 7.
    2) Of the 7 states that require ACT, only 3 states have a matriculation program for students who are multi-lingual. TN is not one of these states. The three states that DO HAVE a program for students who have emigrated and need a matriculation program – have significantly higher scores and place in the top 3rd in the US
    3) Of the 4 states that require the ACT, do not have a matriculation program, all four in the bottom 3rd of the states.
    4) Relevance is extremely important to improving ACT scores. I cite today’s front page article in the Tennessean (2/25/13) rising costs of university tuition. Many students know that college is not an obtainable option, not because of intellect or academics but plainly because of costs. Students are defeated by the cost of college and many struggle with taking a high stakes test seriously, like the ACT, when the cost of college is growing out of control.
    Certainly these are not excuses – but the media should tell the whole story. I agree, it is not all doom and gloom. Data that breaks down the district in a more precise way is needed. What is the average ACT score of a student taking an AP course? What is the average ACT score of students in specific academies? in honors classes? by grade level?

  2. As a former school board member, I get that (a) academic performance is important and (b) that standardized tests are a rough measure of academic performance. That said, however…

    Who does better in life: the group of seniors graduating with a 26 ACT score but without optimism, hope, a growth mindset, knowledge of his or her strengths, and strong relationship skills, or the group of seniors graduating with a 13 on the ACT, but with those key skills? Answer: the group with the 13 and the positive resilience skills – to the tune of an average income over $13,000 per year higher as they get into mid-life. Judge, T. And Hurst, C. (2007) Capitalizing on one’s advantages: Role of Core Self-Evaluations. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92(5), 1212-1227.

    So, yes, let’s pay a reasonable amount of attention to test scores. AND, let’s begin to think about how to help students (and teachers, parents, coaches, leadership) develop the skills that make academic achievement pay off. (Full disclosure: I spend my time these days teaching these skills!)

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