Our Views: Don’t get too worked up over ACT scores

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Sunday, September 17, 2017

Not that parents and educators should dismiss student ACT scores, but it’s important to remember the scores are only one measure of ability and arguably not a very good one.

Wisconsin began putting more emphasis on ACT tests two years ago, joining several other states in requiring all high school graduates to take the college readiness exam. But don’t expect Janesville Superintendent Steve Pophal to gush about improved scores or get too down about a drop. As he stated during a Gazette Editorial Board meeting in July and again during an interview last week, Pophal is not a big fan of standardized testing.

At the same time, he realizes bureaucrats and lawmakers may not share his view, and to the extent that college admissions continue to require students submit their ACT scores, standardized testing will remain relevant.

But Pophal brings to the district refreshing skepticism toward standardized testing, and he feels student time would be better spent preparing for post-secondary education or technical careers than on honing test-taking abilities.

Even the news release issued by the school district regarding Janesville’s latest ACT test scores—a slight rise from the year before—seemed aimed at shifting the conversation to another topic. The release lists the districts’ scores but highlights the district’s goals, or “promises,” as Pophal calls them.

Perhaps the most ambitious promise is to have 90 percent of graduates completing one of three types of classes:

Advanced placement classes to prepare for the rigors of college academics.

Dual enrollment courses similar to AP classwork, except students attend college as part of their high school experience.

Industry credential courses giving students a head start on careers by putting students on track to receive certifications required to enter a particular field.

While an adequate ACT score is necessary to enroll in many colleges, not every high school graduate goes to college. Furthermore, some colleges have started giving less weight to ACT scores, acknowledging their shortcomings as predictors of college success.

In terms of measuring whether the Janesville School District is properly preparing college-bound students, a more important metric, we believe, is the percentage of high school graduates who must take remedial courses at college.

Students assigned to remedial math and English coursework are more likely to drop out or take longer to graduate because colleges don’t award credits for remedial work.

Janesville has a problem in this area, particularly mathematics, as the latest figures demonstrate. In 2015, 16 percent of Craig High School graduates who attended UW system colleges or universities were required to take remedial math. Parker High School fared worse with 36 percent of its graduates needing to take remedial math.

Lowering these percentages through more rigorous, better-designed classroom instruction would prove more meaningful than increasing students’ ACT scores. But make no mistake: A decline in the number of graduates taking remedial classes in college would likely accompany higher ACT scores—it’s just a question of emphasis. Does the district want to deliver real-world preparation or testing-related skills?

Pophal seems aware of the system gaming inherent to standardized testing. There are techniques and strategies test takers can employ that have little or no relation to real-life outcomes. In other words, a perfect ACT score of 36 does not necessarily yield the next Henry Ford or Bill Gates. Standardized-testing smarts aren’t real-world smarts.

As the next crop of Janesville graduates prepares to take the ACT test, encourage them to do well. Just don’t make it seem like their futures depend on acing it.

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