In 2010, the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) for the first time required all of its juniors take the ACT. Unsurprisingly, the effort, spearheaded by board member Terrence Falk, resulted in a decline in already dismal scores. The average ACT score for MPS pupils, while six points below the state average, does have something on the scores released and touted by districts such as Racine and Madison; they are an accurate representation of the college readiness of pupils in the district. It is time for the rest of Wisconsin to follow the lead of MPS and neighboring states and require all Wisconsin juniors to take the ACT.
The ACT is certainly not perfect and has many of the same faults as other standardized tests. It is designed to measure college readiness and may be of less utility for pupils that are on a non-college track. The test is also a snapshot in time – meaning, it cannot measure the actual value added by schools. However, the timeframe to drastically improve achievement levels is almost done by the time students take the ACT, making its use as a snapshot less misleading than tests given to 4th or 8th graders. Most importantly, the ACT is a national test that allows, unlike the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam (WKCE), for comparisons outside of Wisconsin.
Wisconsin is one of thirty states cooperating to develop a new common assessment system aligned to national standards that promises comparable achievement data for Wisconsin pupils. However, the earliest the test will be implemented is the 2014-15 school year. Why wait until then when there is a readily available quality test that can benefit students today? The utility of the ACT to pupils is clear. It is a prerequisite for admission into a four-year college; Wisconsin college-bound students will take the test whether it is required or not.
Universal ACT testing also need not be cost-prohibitive; its introduction can be paired with the elimination of the state test in grade 10. Michigan did exactly that in 2008 and currently uses the ACT to satisfy its No Child Left Behind high school testing requirements. Dumping the WKCE in grade 10 should also not worry those concerned with the loss of longitudinal data; the test is already a lame duck and historic data will soon be of little utility.
As others have pointed out before me, the way ACT results are reported now paints a misleading portrait of the college-readiness of students, particularly in districts with significant minority populations. One clear example is the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD).
The district bragged in an August 17th press release that “[c]ompared to their state peers, MMSD ethnic and racial subgroups scored 3.5% to 18% higher on the ACT.” Technically true, but only 31.1% of African-Americans and 36.7% of Hispanics in MMSD actually took the test. Compare this to 76.5% and 70.8% respectively in MPS. The disparity makes an accurate comparison of MMSD with MPS, or the rest of state considering that over half of the state’s African-American and Hispanic students who took the test are in MPS, impossible.
The future success of our state demands a highly educated populace. To get one, we must first understand how Wisconsin students compare to their peers, and second improve the rates at which all students attend and complete college. Requiring the ACT for all juniors is a common sense way to move toward both of these goals.
The more interesting question spurred by ACT results in Madison and elsewhere is why do so few minority students take a test that is a prerequisite for admittance to a four-year college? Take away Milwaukee and only 38% of Wisconsin African-American and Hispanic high school students took the ACT this year.
-September 20, 2011