ACT results for the 2018 graduating class show the slow but steady achievement descent continues for graduating Kansas seniors. The overall average composite score of 21.6 is down from 21.7 in 2017 – the third decline in the last four years. Not only is the overall composite score lower, but virtually all sub-indicators also declined. Those of particular note include:
->Students who met all four college readiness benchmarks was unchanged at 29%.
->Students who met at least three college readiness benchmarks fell from 44% to 43%.
->Overall STEM scores were lower – down to 21.6 from 21.7.
->The percent of students below proficient in understanding complex texts – such “written material often encountered in college and careers” – increased from 43% to 47%.
->Scores for white and Hispanic students were lower, Asian student scores were unchanged, African American students did slightly better.
->Achievement gaps based on race/ethnicity (ACT does not have income-based sub-categories) remained essentially unchanged.
Comparing Kansas ACT scores to other states and the nation
Although Kansas students fared better than the nation as a whole – 21.6 to 20.8 in composite score – that does not necessarily mean Kansas students are better prepared for college/career than the rest of the country. Increasingly, states are requiring all students to take the ACT. For the class of 2018, all students in 19 states took the test, compared to 71% in Kansas. Not surprisingly, Kansas scored higher than every one of those states. At the other end of the spectrum, less than half the students in 23 states (including D.C.) took the ACT. All but three of those states scored higher than Kansas.
Our neighbors to the north, Nebraska, is an example of the impact of requiring all students to take the ACT. 2018 was the first year all students had to take the test. In 2017, 84.3% took the test with a composite of 21.4. In 2018 that score dropped precipitously to 20.1. The percentage of Cornhusker students meeting benchmarks in all four core subjects dropped from 28% to 22%.
Student preparedness impacts scores, raises questions
Mostly overlooked in analyzing ACT scores is the impact of the number of core curriculum subjects taken by students. ACT reports scores by what they refer to as “Level of Preparation.” All students are put in one of the two categories called “Core or More” and “Less than Core.” Core is defined by ACT as
students taking four or more years of English AND three or more years each of math, social studies, and natural science.
As the table shows, the percentage of students self-reporting taking a core curriculum is trending downward, with only three-quarters taking a core curriculum. Here’s the rub: Kansas graduation requirements oblige all students to take what ACT would consider a core curriculum in order to graduate. Clearly something is amiss.
This is a major concern because the ACT data reveals a substantial achievement gap between students who take a core curriculum and those who take less than a core curriculum during high school. The chart below shows that curriculum-based achievement gap for all students over the past decade. The gap has been three points or higher in each of the last ten years.
The curriculum-based gap is manifested across all racial/ethnic lines. The accompanying table shows the class of 2018 curriculum-based achievement gap by race/ethnicity. It also indicates that black, Hispanic and multi-racial students are taking core curriculum courses at a much lower rate than white and Asian students.
This is a situation that deserves attention. Common sense says that students who have a higher level of preparation for the test based on their high school curriculum would score higher than those who have a lower level of preparation. The data supports that contention.
This data raises some important questions. First, if Kansas students are required to take an ACT-defined core curriculum in order to graduate, why are so many college-bound students claiming differently? Why is this inconsistency exacerbated when controlling for race/ethnicity? Is this a reporting problem, or are Kansas students allowed to graduate without meeting state mandated requirements?
The data shows that overall ACT scores continue to slowly decline while simultaneously students appear to be less prepared for exam. That should be enough to sound an alarm to get attention of the education community.