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.

ACT Now! Our plan to raise ACT scores across the district

Every high school student in Tennessee is required totake the ACT. Tennessee is one of just a handful of states with this requirement and while that is not always good for our public image – it perhaps puts statewide test scores below other states where only the best and brightest take the test – it is very good for our students. Some students who might not otherwise take the test are required to, giving them an additional college credential or even a HOPE scholarship.

We want all our high school students to score a bare minimum 21 on the ACT. Of course, we prepare them to reach much higher than that, but we set the minimum at 21 because that is when scholarships and financial aid to state schools are within reach. With a 21, many students can afford college.

This year’s ACT results for our district show we still have a long way to go, but we’re making progress.  In fact, we’ve advanced our scores at a faster rate than the rest of the state.

But it’s still not good enough. We need better results in a shorter amount of time. We need results like the ones at Hillwood High School.

In the short time since Hillwood principal Dr. Steve Chauncy started his ACT Now program, the percentage of his students scoring 21 or higher has risen nearly 10%. When you consider statewide gains are measured in tenths of a percent, that is a huge jump.

How did Hillwood do it? And how will Dr. Chauncy and the Hillwood team spread similar results district-wide?

  1. Practice, practice, practice
    Before students take the actual ACT in their junior year, they sit for up to six practice tests – one as freshmen, the PLAN test, two practice assessments as sophomores, and two as juniors. Those tests are as real as they come, often actual ACT exams from previous years given through a program called Learning Express. By the time they sit for the real thing, they know exactly what to expect.
  2. Targeted instruction
    Rather than teaching students how to take a test, data from these practice tests is used for targeted instruction in the classroom. Areas of need are identified for individual students, and lessons can be are tailored to those needs. That starts right away. Freshmen come into Hillwood carrying data from the EXPLORE test taken in middle school. That data is used to start building ACT college skills in freshmen seminar classes.
  3. Critical Thinking Classes
    All Hillwood sophomores take a Critical Thinking and Imaginative Writing course where they learn how to apply their knowledge to problem solving and real world scenarios. That helps work through tough questions like those on the ACT and the even tougher questions students will later address in college and in their careers.
  4. Adaptable Solutions for All Schools
    This program has been shared across the district to all zoned high schools. But not every high school is the same, so it is can be easily molded to fit a particular school’s needs, resources, and abilities. As schools find improvements, they will be incorporated into the ACT Now program so the district is in a cycle of continuous improvement.

Development for this program is far from over. We are going even deeper into the data, looking at individual questions on practice tests to identify the academic support students need and we are providing afterschool tutoring for juniors with support from HCA.

The program began at Hillwood in the fall of 2010 and is spreading so all our high schools see rapid growth and all students are college ready and eligible for scholarship dollars.

It’s Official: Metro Nashville Public Schools rates “Intermediate” status

District meets seven of nine benchmarks; student achievement grows

Metro Nashville Public Schools showed growth in achievement among all subgroups of students last year, placing the district in intermediate status – the second highest accountability category. The State Department of Education earlier today released district-level status for all Tennessee districts, including for Metro Nashville Public Schools.

Under this new accountability framework, the top-performing districts are “Exemplary” while the bottom performing districts are in two “In Need of Improvement” categories; the remaining districts are in an intermediate category. Tennessee’s new accountability system replaces No Child Left Behind’s Annual Yearly Progress measures. Rather than expecting all districts to meet the same benchmarks year after year, the new system acknowledges that districts are starting from different places and rewards those that show the most growth. Under the new system, approximately 43% of districts were categorized as “In Need of Improvement” or “In Need of Subgroup Improvement.”

“These results show that thousands more of our students are performing at a higher level,” said Director of Schools Dr. Jesse Register. “Tennessee standards are among the highest in the country and this new accountability system is real, it is holding districts to standards that are difficult but attainable.

“The growth we have seen this year is the result of a lot of hard work, of making changes to instructional practice, providing more professional development and meeting our students’ diverse needs. We want to accelerate that growth at all levels and close achievement gaps.”

The accountability system, adopted after Tennessee secured a waiver from part of NCLB earlier this year, looks to districts to increase achievement levels for all students and reduce achievement gaps that exist between certain groups. Metro Schools serves approximately one-third of the state’s English Learner students, as well approximately 12,000 Students with Disabilities. The district also serves more than 56,000 economically disadvantaged students, which is about 71% of total enrollment for last year.

Metro Schools’ students made significant academic progress in the 2011-12 school year and the district met the majority of Tennessee’s academic achievement targets. In 2010, Tennessee adopted new academic performance standards that are among the most demanding in the nation. Metro Schools have shown steady improvement against these higher standards.

Grade 3-8 TCAP Tests
% proficient/advanced
  2010 2011 2012 
Reading/Language Arts 33.9% 38.9% 42.1% 
Math 25.9% 32.2% 38.4%
Science 36.2% 38.8%  44.5%
High School End of Course Exams
% proficient/advanced
  2010 2011  2012 
Algebra I 28.7% 37.6% 41.8%
English II 47.4% 46.6%  48.7% 

In addition, the district made impressive improvement at every grade level on the TCAP writing assessment with nine out of ten middle and high school students scoring competent or better.

Writing Assessment
Competent or Higher
  2010 2011  2012 
Grade 5  77% 77% 81% 
Grade 8 86% 86% 90%
Grade 11 90% 88%  91%

With this new system, Metro Schools met seven of nine benchmarks. The district showed improvement but narrowly missed the set benchmark for third grade reading/language arts. The district also missed in the graduation rate, the one calculation that has a one-year lag. The state has changed its calculation of graduation rate from a 5-year calculation to a 4-year calculation. Many students served by Metro Schools, such as English Learners or Students with Disabilities, require five years to graduate and are not included in the district’s overall graduation rate. Last year, Metro Schools’ graduation rate was 76.2%, down from 82.9% under the 5-year calculation. The 2012 graduation rate is not available.

Under Tennessee’s new accountability framework, the top-performing districts are exemplary while the bottom performing districts are in two in need of improvement categories; the remaining districts are in an intermediate category.

“I appreciate the support of our Board of Education as we transform our district. We knew test scores would be the last thing to change and we are pleased to see this growth,” said Register. “We must continue to improve in all categories. Reducing the achievement gap among student groups is our most significant challenge.”

Individual student reports are in transit to the schools where students are assigned for the 2012-13 school year. Each school will send the reports home to families. The State of Tennessee has not yet released school-level data.