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Economic, racial gaps persist ACT is sobering news on school performance

  • Kansas City Star
  • Published Thursday, August 23, 2012, at 6:31 a.m.
  • Updated Thursday, August 23, 2012, at 10:10 a.m.

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Nothing, it seems, can break the ACT test’s grip on an exasperating status quo.

Progress in the college entrance exam scores released Wednesday mostly eluded the nation’s and Kansas’ high schools.

Little was gained even after a decade of No Child Left Behind reforms.

No matter that Kansas schools have shown steady growth on their state assessments. The ACT is education’s reality check.

Some schools saw boosts in their average scores. But they embraced the gains cautiously because many schools that gained a year ago slipped back.

The ups and downs converged on a flat line in Kansas average scores, maintaining a persistent gap among races and socio-economic groups.

The national average held fast at 21.1 out of a possible score of 36. Kansas went from 22 to 21.9.

The best news lay in small gains in math and science that showed more students appeared college-ready in what remain the most challenging subjects.

Even with the gains, though, only about one-third of the test-takers in Kansas are ready to pass a college course in science and just half are ready to pass a college course in math.

Kansas overall scored slightly higher than Missouri, with both states holding their positions slightly above the national averages — meaning ACT success has been elusive nationwide.

Wichita public schools mirrored the state’s and nation’s mixed results, with some schools seeing small gains and most small losses, leaving the district still below the national average.

The Wichita district’s average composite score this year was 19.7, compared with 19.8 last year. More than 1,800 Wichita students took the test this year, compared with about 1,650 in 2011. Average composite scores ranged from 17.9 at Wichita West High to 21.5 at East High.

“After 10 years of No Child Left Behind, the ACT shows we’re making no progress to either of the law’s laudable goals,” said Bob Schaeffer of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.

Performance is lagging, he said. Significant gaps remain between affluent children and their economically disadvantaged peers. Likewise, non-Hispanic white and Asian students widened the difference between them and black and Hispanic students.

The ACT test, assuming a role as a sort of external audit, is rolling out scores in most states that dampen higher achievement on state tests. The ACT results don’t show the same bounce schools can gain through curriculum that is aligned to the state exams giving schools the ability “to teach to the test,” Schaeffer said.

The ACT “is not manipulated so easily,” he said.

Kansas is part of a national initiative to establish common core standards, which place greater emphasis on college and career preparation. The hope is that if the focus changes, test results will follow.

“It does make a difference that we’re trying to make a connection between K-12 education and college education in a way that we never have before,” said Tom Foster, director for Career, Standards and Assessment Services for the Kansas Department of Education.

The state will also look at college and career readiness as part of the accreditation. Schools must prove they are prepping students for life after high school.

But when will a nation trying to compete against the world really move the needle on college readiness?

The gains Kansas has made in the math and science performance of ACT, though incremental, are significant, said ACT spokesman Ed Colby.

The same push has occurred across several states.

“While we can feel good about the growth that we see,” he said, “there are far too many students still graduating from high school ill-prepared for success at the next level.”

Contributing: Suzanne Perez Tobias of The Eagle

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