Wednesday, November 17, 2010


ACT Inc suggests "benchmark standards" which are intended to indicate a student's readiness of college. Using these criteria, the Chicago Tribune reported recently on how Illinois high schools measure up. In a nutshell, the information was not positive. The standards themselves are unbelievably low, leaving the impression that kids don't have to know much in order to "succeed" in college, and results of the ACT component on the Prairie State Achievement Exam cast a shadow on any school that hopes to prepare more than 75% of their students for at least a 50-50 chance of earning a respectable grade in freshmen level college courses.

Not wishing to be the bearer of only bad news, I’ll start by saying that entry level scores on college entrance exams, like the ACT component of the Prairie State Achievement Exam (PSAE), are simply a starting point. There are many reasons a student may not achieve his or her best score if the test is taken “cold.” Some of these reasons are academically founded, but others hinge on knowledge of the test’s format, structure, and expectations.

That said, let’s think about the recent Chicago Tribune article highlighting Illinois statewide statistics on student readiness for college. (Friday, November 12, 2010, section 1, pp1+) Tutoring Resources’ primary service area includes North Cook, Lake, and McHenry counties. For the most part, our students are among the highest scoring in ACT’s recent survey of “college readiness benchmarks.” The creators of the popular entrance exam estimate that meeting the standard indicates a student has a 50 percent chance of earning a B or higher and a 75 percent chance of earning a C of higher in typical freshman courses. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I am of the opinion that a C in a college course is not acceptable, especially in the core courses required of a freshman. As a parent responsible for tuition and other fees, I would be less than pleased by only a 50% chance that my pecuniary investment would have a reasonable return.)

Benchmark scores established by ACT Inc for purposes of comparison are stunningly low in my opinion: English 18, Math 22, Reading 21, and Science Reasoning 24. I’m bewildered that English and Math are the lowest standards, while Science Reasoning is set at well above the average composite score nationwide. An average of the four benchmarks is lower than a national average composite score and just slightly above the state composite average. Yet, at Tutoring Resources' highest ranking high school, only 51.6% of the students met all four benchmarks.

The ACT researchers do not imply that there is blame to lay on our high schools, our teachers, or even our children. I would agree with this restraint and could, if asked, provide proof that our schools are doing better than these statistics might suggest if used in the wrong context. I DO believe that awareness of the criteria used by test developers, knowledge of the testing format, experience with actual test materials, and other nonacademic issues can have a significant impact on the scores each student can achieve and should strive to attain.

It is my experience that almost every freshman will be required to take a composition course through the college’s English department and those professors have every right, in my opinion, to expect students from our high schools to know when to use a semicolon, how to punctuate between independent sentences, that its’ is not a word, the difference between their/there/they’re, and other common grammar rules tested on the ACT English section. To achieve an 18, the student needs to answer only about 54% of the questions correctly. To propose that a student who knows only one-half of the standard grammar concepts will succeed without tremendous effort is wishful thinking.

Similarly in Math, to earn a score of 22, a student needs to find correct solutions for 32 to 35 of the 60 questions (53% to 58%). Considering as many as 5% of the questions might involve Trigonometry and/or higher level concepts not covered in some high school courses, but understanding the statistical probability that careful guessing can be rewarded with as much as a 20% success rate, setting a “benchmark” so low is anticipating that our college-bound students will be able to sustain an enormously challenging effort level in college math classes.

My tutors and I take every ACT that is made public and are constantly evaluating the concepts tested and looking for patterns of study which will help our students. So I tend to be positive about the test itself and the publishers and creators. I’m sure that researchers at ACT are cognizant of the limited ability of a single test to predict college success. Perhaps these “benchmarks” are intended to acknowledge the other factors which play into a student’s achievements at the college level: motivation, maturity, and personality. But I’m not willing to send my kids off to distant parts with only a 50% chance of succeeding.

I actually like the ACT test, not so much in terms of college admission (which is a fact of life not within my control), but as preparation for college itself. I expect my students to arrive on campus with a significant understanding of English rhetoric and grammar and with a thorough comprehension of high school level Math concepts. I want them to be prepared to focus on style and content in their first English course, not where to put a comma. I want them to obviate the need for remedial math courses, at full tuition for no credit, before qualifying to enroll in 2 semesters of required college level math. While I cringe at the low scores suggested as adequate, the ACT test itself and the English and Math concepts included in the testing are without doubt important elements for reviewing what we learned in high school and should take into the world after graduation.

Every student can use preparation for the ACT test as a foundation for success in college. Review the necessary concepts; the ACT authors test common mistakes which should be avoided in a composition class. Create study guides for use in college classes because elementary arithmetic really is necessary when solving a complex calculus problem. Raise those individual section scores to the highest possible level to demonstrate the student’s true potential and maybe even qualify for a great scholarship, but most importantly, to reinforce the foundation for academic prowess in post-secondary education. Treat the ACT as a handy checklist for packing to go off to college:
√ toothpaste
√ pillow
√ computer
√ Tutoring Resources’ “25 Grammar Rules”
√ a note card of those pesky math equations

By using the ACT test as the "benchmark" for what curricular concepts need to be firmly in place before starting college, a student is using the required entrance exam to its fullest potential and greatly increasing the 50% probability of earning outstanding grades in the ubiquitous Freshman English Composition and College Algebra classes.

1 comment:

  1. Here is a response I received from Susan King, Administrator at Tutoring Resources-Barrington Center......A worthwhile sentiment to add to the conversation, from an individual who is obviously interested in supporting the WHOLE CHILD.....

    While many readers may be stunned to learn how few students at very highly regarded schools are not considered even marginally ready for college according to the statistics presented in the Chicago TRIBUNE, November 12 article, parents need to pay attention to what is truly important in a child’s success.

    The ACT test can measure your ability to communicate clearly, your prowess in solving problems, your aptitude for finding needed facts, and your capacity to look at data, define relationships and make predictions. It rewards those who can push aside useless information to answer the questions asked. It favors the quick, but not necessarily the thorough. You can train to take the ACT, solidifying your knowledge of grammar, rhetoric, algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. You can become familiar with its structure and learn strategies to do your best, practicing your timing to know when to skip over questions that stymie you to find more of the ones you can answer easily.

    What the ACT will not measure is your creativity, your work ethic, your curiosity, your honesty, or your wisdom. It will not predict how you will function as a team member or an independent worker. I would guess there are many employers who would far prefer a young person who worked very hard for a 24 on the ACT than one who got a 34 without much effort. But these qualities are not reflected in the ACT’s college readiness standards.

    As a tutor for the ACT test, I see students who strive to raise their scores for the opportunity apply to exclusive schools, and I see students who struggle just to get into a four year college. They all have one important attribute, however. These students have parents that have taught them to not take anything for granted and I believe it is that attitude that will get them A’s and B’s in college, not just their ACT scores.