While Jefferson County Public Schools’ ACT test scores have traditionally been lower than state and national averages, it ranks among the middle of its metropolitan peers.
Comparing local schools to schools across the nation can be difficult. Not all states use the same tests or metrics and even graduation rates could be calculated differently, although the U.S. Department of Education is changing that practice so all states follow each student until he or she graduates.
Unlike those measures, the ACT is a nationwide exam that’s the same across the board, said Ed Colby, a spokesman for the ACT.
But critics argue that the ACT isn’t a perfect indicator of academic achievement. As with the National Assessment of Educational Progress test, some students are afforded certain accommodations that could improve their score. It’s described in this Education Week blog.
Nearly 6,000 JCPS high school juniors took the ACT college entrance exam Tuesday as part of the state’s accountability system. Only eight states last year required all high school juniors to take the ACT. Those include Kentucky, Wyoming, Tennessee, Illinois, Michigan, Colorado, Mississippi and North Dakota. Three more states will join that group this year, Colby said.
“The important thing is to look at states where all students are tested because their results are going to be quite a bit different from states where students are taking the test on a voluntary basis because they want to go to college,” Colby said.
Kentucky’s 2012 graduating class posted a composite score–meaning an average of all four content areas tested including English, math, reading and science–of 19. This score beat out Mississippi and Tennessee among the eight states that tested 100 percent of graduates.
It’s helpful to compare JCPS to school districts of similar size and demographics—but no similar district in a state that requires ACT testing is just like JCPS.
In JCPS, more than 60 percent of students are considered low-income and are eligible for free or reduced lunches. That places it below the low-income rates for cities like Chicago Public Schools with 87 percent and Detroit City Public Schools with 77 percent low-income, but above Wake County Public Schools in North Carolina with 33 percent.
All three of these districts are large urban school districts.
“We’ve found traditionally that students in lower income areas tend to earn lower average scores than students in higher income areas on the whole,” Colby says.
When JCPS is considered among the largest districts in the eight states that tested all juniors, the district’s composite score, 18.6, was somewhere in the middle of the pack.
The school districts that posted higher ACT scores than Jefferson County include Wake County Public Schools, which has a low-income student population that’s half of JCPS. Also, Jeffco Public Schools in Colorado (just outside of Denver) which has a student population of 85,000 received one of the higher scores in the eight states, but also a low-income student population of 33 percent. Denver, which is the urban core, received a 17.6 composite score with a low-income student population of 73.
Further, states using college ACT college readiness benchmarks may measure success differently for their own state assessments. For example in North Carolina, a student must get a score of 22 on math and 21 on reading to be deemed college-ready. In Kentucky, the Council on Post Secondary Education has set those benchmarks at 19 and 20 respectively.
But regardless of how states use the test its still a college entrance exam. This also means the test is “instructionally insensitive” says University of Kentucky professor Thomas Guskey.
“The ACT is really an excellent, excellent test for the purposes for which it was designed,” he says.
What that design includes is a mechanism for sorting students, he says. The scores need to be able to define students who excel and those that fall behind, unlike other tests that measure whether students are proficient in a certain subject.
“If they’re [scores] too close together it’s difficult for colleges and universities to use that in making selective decisions about who gets in and who doesn’t, and who gets scholarships and who doesn’t,” Guskey says.
JCPS students have made only slight gains in ACT scores, but have increased the number of students deemed college and career ready under the new accountability system, which also considers technical education certificates.