Note: This is the fourth in a series of articles regarding the USD 435 District Learning Update presented to the Abilene Board of Education at the Nov. 11 meeting. Part 3 discussed state assessment results that show students are doing a good job when it comes to reading and English but still struggle in math and addressed the district’s plan to concentrate more on math at the lower level using Multi-Tiered System of Support strategies. This article continues that discussion in regard to the ACT — the test commonly used to assess high school students’ readiness for college.
Abilene High School students who take the ACT test are performing well above state levels in reading, English and science, but 2019 math scores show Abilene students scoring at 20.4, while the state average is at 20.7.
However, Abilene students still are doing better on the ACT test overall than the state average, with composite scores showing Abilene at 22.2 and the state at 21.2.
The ACT is a standardized test designed to measure high school students’ general educational development and their ability to complete college-level work.
“Our composite scores are really good — 22.2 on average for all kids that took it,” said Abilene Assistant Superintendent Chris Cooper. “I went back 12 years and there’s no three years of average that compared to the last three years.
“Those were the highest three years we’ve had in 12 to 15 years,” he continued. “I didn’t look before that, but I’m guessing those wouldn’t compare with any of our peak.”
MTSS & ACT scores
Cooper and district staff think MTSS reading interventions are helping improve Abilene students’ ACT scores.
MTSS is a system to help prevent students from “falling through the cracks” by using assessments and interventions to make sure students understand basic learning concepts so there are no missing pieces.
On the English section of the ACT test, Abilene students came in at 22.1, compared with the state at 20.5; in the reading section Abilene students were at 23.1 while the state was at 21.8.
“We’ve been above the state average the last several years in English, and in reading we’ve been significantly above the state trend, as well as the national trend in the National Assessment of Education Progress,” Cooper said.
The district’s science results also are “pretty good” at 22.5, while the state is at 21.1.
“We’re seeing a downward trend in the state, but we’re (Abilene) on a jagged upward trend,” Cooper said.
Board Member Mark Wilson asked what was making the difference in science. Cooper said he thinks that’s a byproduct of the reading interventions.
“I think it has a lot to do with the reading, because that flows over into math and science,” Cooper said. “That reading score is going to help your composite go up. So if math (scores) were up in the range of reading, we would be looking at 23½ or 24 composites. My hope is we get there soon.
“We will have more kids tested as juniors last year because it was free — that typically brings your score down a little bit. But what I saw in preliminary results that didn’t really happen to us. It’s going to hopefully stay steady,” Cooper added.
Teach to the test?
“On the ACT, there’s lots of things we can do for test prep, but we haven’t done a lot of that, although we’ve provided an ACT prep course kids can sign up for if they want to,” Cooper said.
“The ACT might end up becoming a state assessment, but was scrapped for this year,” he said, explaining that if that happens, the district would need to start doing more prep work.
Board Member Randy Gassman noted that when the district and community formulated the strategic plan about five years ago, math was a big concern.
“I know we’re trying to make it an emphasis. I’m hearing it has to start at such a young level and we’re not seeing the results yet. But it’s still down, but we think we’re on the right track?” Gassman questioned.
Abilene High School Principal Ben Smith said a lot of intervention is done at the high school for high-risk kids that might bring them from a third-grade math level up to a sixth-grade level over the course of a year.
“If they take the ACT, it’s still well above where they’re functioning at that point,” Smith explained. “We’re having improvement in a kid’s math skills — third- to sixth-grade growth in a year is good growth — but it’s still going to be lower than the tested level on the ACT or the state assessment.”
Earlier this year, all freshmen took the pre-ACT test at the request of the state. Cooper said staff will be able to find out what areas students struggled with and address those.
“Quite honestly, I’m more concerned about those scores (ACT) than the state assessment,” he said. “ACT scores mean a lot to kids. These are high stakes and we need to get those math scores up.”
Board Member Gregg Noel asked if that meant “teaching to the test.”
Cooper said it wouldn’t be just that but be “more balanced,” working more on specific concepts rather than just the test.
“What I’m hearing is there would be a little of both,” said Board President Kyle Becker. “For kids at the lower levels, we’re implementing strategies that are going to help them as they go on. But for those kids who are already here (high school age), we’re trying to get them raised up to a level where they can get some added money when they’re going to school if we can get that ACT score up a little bit and do it rapidly.”
Smith said that if the ACT is in alignment with college readiness, then it’s a valid test to teach to: “It’s a lot different than 10 years ago.”
Cooper explained that when instructors used to “teach to the test,” students were taught specific words or concepts that automatically meant they would do better when tested.
“That wasn’t helping kids. My hope is we find a concept kids are not good at, we work on that, help them, and they do better on the test,” he said.
Superintendent Greg Brown agreed.
“On the old state assessment, the primary thing that hurt good teaching was they told you exactly which questions were going to be on that test — the learning indicators — so that’s what teachers did. They decided, ‘I’m going to teach those indicators and not going to teach everything.’ That really created some issues,” Brown explained.
Contact Kathy Hageman at email@example.com.