Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Rest of the 2008 ACT Story

Well, the 2008 ACT college entrance test results are out, and the Kentucky Department of Education is spinning the story faster than a jet engine. Here are some facts to throttle that noise back a bit.

First, in the “Who ya gonna trust?” department about the new ACT score release, the Kentucky Enquirer today quotes one education source as saying, "The news isn't good, but it's probably too soon to see any of the results of the initiatives we've put in place over the last few years." Meanwhile, the Lexington Herald-Leader writes that an education source told them, “…the latest results are encouraging.”

It turns out both papers reference the same source, Lisa Gross from the Kentucky Department of Education. Check out the Enquirer’s take in “Students not ready for college” and the Herald-Leaders obviously more optimistic “State’s ACT news is good.”

Here are some more facts to help you decide what the news really is.

The number of students taking the ACT in Kentucky is up again in 2008, and the overall Composite score is up another 0.2 point, as well.

That is good news – for someone. However, no-one can tell from this report if the increase in scores and participation comes from public schools, private schools, or home schools. You see, this is an overall report covering all students. There is no way to tell from this report how much, if any, of the improvement is due to KERA.

Never the less, Education Commissioner Jon Draud lost no time in yesterday’s Education Assessment and Accountability Review Subcommittee meeting to crow a bit about the higher scores as though they were definitely a plus for KERA (I attended – In the process, Draud probably broke the embargo on releasing these scores in public until this morning. I suppose rules are for other people). Regardless, we won’t know for some time how our KERA-influenced public schools did statewide, but scattered reports in the news articles above and in the Courier-Journal indicate that the Kentucky Enquirer’s take that “students are not ready for college” is a good summation of our current situation. Despite some small progress, only 19 percent of our kids are really ready for their freshman year.

Here are some more things of interest.

Both the Courier and the Herald-Leader articles provide evidence that African-Americans lost more ground in the new 2008 ACT report. Sadly, that is absolutely correct. For example, our analysis of Table 1.5 in the ACT High School Profile Report for Kentucky for 2008 shows that in 2004 the gap between the Composite score for whites and African-Americans was 3.7 points. In 2008 that increased to 3.9 points. This is not progress.

Perhaps the most depressing part of the entire ACT report is found on page 20, which summarizes the percentages of students who fully meet all the ACT’s individual subject benchmark scores for college success.

Only three percent – yes, just three out of 100 African-American high school grads in Kentucky in 2008 – were fully ready for college! In contrast, 20 percent of the white students were fully ready. Those figures are based on the ACT’s very carefully researched benchmark scoring program, which provides a 75 percent chance of earning a “C” or a 50 percent chance of a “B” in first-year college courses. For all the rest of the students, college is going to be a real challenge, a fact reflected in our low college graduation rates in Kentucky.

We pulled up last year’s ACT High School Profile Report for Kentucky for 2007 and found on page 19 that last year four percent of the African-Americans and 19 percent of whites were ready for college. Thus, the fully-ready-for-college gap for African-Americans versus whites got notably worse this year. For African-Americans, the drop from four to three percent readiness isn’t progress. I guess the education commissioner just ignores these students when he talks about great progress in Kentucky.

There is also a big difference in the proportions of Kentucky males and females in the 2008 ACT test sample. Only 44 percent of ACT takers in the class of 2008 were males, while 55 percent were females.

One wonders where those females are going to find life partners in the future. On the other hand, it looks like college is going to be heaven for the few males fortunate enough to get there. Why do our schools so noticeably under-serve male students? Why does the commissioner think this rather disturbing evidence of a sexist effect in KERA is progress?

On another sad note, the ACT reports the proportion of graduating seniors that took their assessment declined from 77 percent in 2007 to 72 percent this year. That is an attention-getting decline. (Find the 2007 test taking percentage data here and the 2008 data here) This could mean that the 0.2 point score rise came only because fewer weak students took the ACT this year.

To be fair, I must mention that there are some questions about the accuracy of those 77 and 72 percent figures, but there is also evidence in the ACT Score Distributions Table 2.1 in the 2008 report that fewer weak students indeed were in the tested group in 2008. The numbers of students receiving lower scores are below the numbers from a year ago in the corresponding 2007 table. With an overall rise in the number of students tested in 2008, this unbalanced situation would be likely unless there actually was a real decline in the proportion of potentially low-scoring graduates who took the ACT in 2008.

As the Enquirer’s article points out, Kentucky’s endemic problems with math also showed up in the new ACT scores. While across the nation 43 percent of the Class of 2008 was ready for college algebra, in Kentucky only 35 percent were. Overall, just 19 percent of Kentucky’s Class of 2008 was fully ready for college across the four key subjects of English, math, reading and science. After all the noise we are hearing about great progress in Kentucky education, that chilling statistic says someone in education simply does not have the big picture.

That certainly includes Kentucky’s education commissioner, who again stated at yesterday’s legislative meeting that we are making great progress in Kentucky education. I cannot fathom how, after nearly 20 years of KERA, getting less than one out of five of our best students ready for college and life can possibly be evidence of great progress. At this snails pace rate, we are looking at something on the order of at least another half a century to make it to where a reasonably high proportion of our high school graduates are ready for their next step in life. And, this says nothing about the clearly less impressive progress with the lower performing graduates who don’t go on to college and the roughly three out of ten students who don’t graduate at all.

In the end, we have made a small amount of progress, but only a very modest improvement, at best. And, we still don’t know if the small amount of the latest ACT progress came from our KERA-impacted public school system.


Anonymous said...

In a press release on the Dept. of Education website they cite the fact that more students taking the test as progress. The raw number of test takers was quoted, not the percentage. Any claim can be made if you pick and choose what data you report.

Richard Innes said...

Good observation, Anonymous Aug 14!

Here's another note along that line of discussion: Kentucky's participation rate on the ACT rose 2.6% from 2007 to 2008. The national participation rate went up 9.3%.