Media sugarcoats, KSDE downplays flat ACT scores

David DorseyEducation

A year ago, when the 2014 ACT scores were released I published a blog that summarized the scores. I borrowed a famous Yogi Berra line in the title calling the results “déjà vu all over again.” The 2015 scores are now in and…well, I refuse to use the same line. Suffice it to say that not much changed in a year.

The composite scores for all Kansas students and every reported subgroup are within one-tenth of a point of last year’s scores. The composite score for all Kansas students taking the test of 21.9 is a virtual repeat of the composites for the last five years: 22, 21.8, 21.9, 22 and 22. Kansans exceeded the national average of 21.0, a number also virtually unchanged from recent years.

Every Kansas racial/ethnic subgroup, save Asians, is also above the national average. But before breaking into a happy dance, please note that it is tricky when comparing ACT scores from state-to-state. There are now 13 states that require all students to take the ACT and are predictably among the lowest performing states. (Kansas as a state doesn’t require students to take the ACT but some districts do.)

College readiness scores also virtually mirror those from 2014. All students and each subgroup in 2015 are within 1% of how they scored last year. This year 32%, of all students met ACT college readiness benchmark scores in all four tested areas: English, math, reading, and science.

The attention grabber is how the media is sugarcoating the results and KSDE is downplaying the same.

The Kansas City Star congratulated Kansans for outperforming the nation in all four tested areas. Additionally, they reported that for the fifth consecutive year, Kansas increased the percentage of high school graduates meeting all four ACT college-readiness benchmarks. However, the Star failed to mention that the number is 32%, meaning less than one-third of college-bound high school graduates are truly college ready.

The Wichita Eagle was a little more forthcoming with the results by reporting that 32% are college ready, but put a ribbon on it by comparing it to the 28% who were college ready in 2011 and the current national college-readiness figure, also 28%.

The Salina Journal and Wichita Business Journal pretty much echoed the major newspapers.

It is incongruent to me that the same media that is highly critical of the state legislature, the governor and even the State Board of Education for not performing up to their expectations, appears quite pleased when our students perform about average.

Are we willing to accept mediocrity?

Apparently KSDE is, based on their reactions to the ACT results. KSDE spokeswoman Denise Kahler was quoted as saying. “We’re optimistic,” and “We think there’s a lot of good growth to come.”

A more troubling comment came from Education Commissioner Randy Watson. He said, “You are going to hear me say over and over again that assessments are one snapshot in time of a student’s academic readiness for postsecondary pursuits — whether those pursuits lead to college or careers.”

I beg to differ.

The results of the ACT are much more than a snapshot. The ACTs are a high-stakes undertaking that assess a culmination of ability with real consequences. It is not a pop-quiz. Students who take the ACT spend time and money taking test preps knowing the results can have an enormous impact on their post-secondary pursuits. Students can take the test up to twelvetimes. According to the ACT website, 57% of those who retake the test increase their composite score. Saying the ACT is a snapshot of academic skills is like saying the Super Bowl is a snapshot of football skills.

Watson also said, “Academics alone cannot guarantee success. We would be doing our kids a disservice to not work equally hard on developing soft skills like persistence, conscientiousness and teamwork.”

True, those “soft skills” are important and should not be dismissed. But that shouldn’t draw attention away from the more immediate and fundamental question of why less than one in three of those who want to continue their formal education after high school are fully academically prepared. Furthermore, what do you suppose this says about those students who don’t have college aspirations and have self-selected themselves out of taking the ACT?

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