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Thumbs up, down for local ACT scores

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FRANK J. SCHULTZ
August 13, 2008
— A bunch of test scores can say a lot. That’s why the ACT scores for this year’s Janesville high school seniors aren’t all good or all bad.

District officials find some of the information from the college-readiness test encouraging. For instance, the average ACT score for both Craig and Parker high school students is better than last year’s.


More Janesville students took the ACT this year than at any time in the past five years, which means quality improved along with quantity.


And Janesville’s scores across the board are better than those for the rest of the nation.


The average ACT composite score nationally was 21.1, compared with 21.2 a year ago. The top score is 36. Janesville’s average was 22.


On the down side, Janesville’s average composite score is a bit lower than the state average 22.3.


But look at the context: Wisconsin ranked third highest among the 26 states in which at least half the graduates took the test, behind Minnesota and Iowa. So being below average also means being ahead of most of the nation.


But break it down further, and the ACT performance of the district’s black and Hispanic minorities sticks out.


The average scores for blacks and Hispanics in Janesville lag well behind those of students who labeled themselves Asian or white. That continuing disparity mirrors the continuing statewide achievement gap.


Janesville School District testing coordinator Ruth Robinson labeled those numbers “concerning.”


“We have some problems that need to be solved, obviously,” Robinson said.


Robinson noted that averages don’t tell the whole story, and they certainly don’t say much about an individual student’s performance.


Robinson said more would be known about local students’ performance when the data is examined more closely and compared with scores from Advanced Placement tests and from the statewide Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exams.


Craig and Parker high schools had the greatest numbers of students taking the ACT in the past five years, 279 for Craig and 201 for Parker. District officials could not immediately say how big a proportion of the graduating class that represents, but Robinson estimated it was about 50 percent.


Statewide, 67 percent took the ACT. Nationally, 43 percent did.


Another way to look at the scores is to compare them with the ACT “benchmark” scores in each subject. Students who score at the benchmark have a 75 percent chance of earning at least a “C” in a related college course, according to ACT officials.


The benchmark score in English is 18. In Janesville and statewide, 77 percent of students scored at least an 18 in English.


The math benchmark is 22. Forty-eight percent of Janesville students scored 22 or better, the best result in five years. However, that’s lower than the state’s 54 percent.


The reading benchmark is 21. Fifty-nine percent of Janesville students and 61 percent statewide met this benchmark.


The science benchmark is 24. Thirty-six percent of Janesville students and 38 percent statewide met the benchmark.


The ACT, an Iowa City, Iowa-based nonprofit, says a major part of the shortfall in college readiness is that students fail to complete college-prep courses. Students who take a recommended “core” sequence—four years of English, and three each of math, science and social studies—are significantly more likely to meet benchmarks.


ACT also said the core courses need more rigor. Nationwide, among 2008 graduates who took the minimum core curriculum in math—algebra I and II plus geometry—just 14 percent met the math benchmark.


The ACT’s creators said it was good news that average scores nationwide held nearly steady even as more students took the exam. That means the total number who earned benchmark scores showing they’re ready for college-level work is rising.


“In terms of the number of students who are ready this year compared to last, we are talking about genuine progress,” said Cyndie Schmeiser, president of the ACT Education Division. “More students are reaching at least a minimum level of readiness for college-credit courses. We’re keeping a lot of kids from having to take remedial level courses. That translates to millions of dollars that are being saved at the state level.”


The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Click here to view a breakdown of ACT scores for Janesville schools [PDF].

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