Broken?

As HHS refocuses efforts towards the ACT, we join the national conversation about standardized testing,

March 3, 2017

The takers

When Lilli Appelman, junior, walked into her first ACT on Feb. 11, she was already aware of the impact those scores could have on her future.

“I feel like a lot was riding on the ACT because so many colleges use this as your border-point to get you into college,” Appelman said. “It’s basically how you get accepted, plus your grades.”

As dozens of HHS students took the ACT that day, they experienced the high-stakes environment of a highly controversial test that plays a significant role in college admissions firsthand. But the experiences of the ACT extend far beyond its three-hour duration.

Sophie Sandler, junior, walked into the same building as Appelman that day. But after a semester abroad and multiple advanced classes, Sandler felt detached from the test material.

“I’m taking classes like AP Calculus and AP Statistics, which are above the standards on the ACT math section specifically, and I think that those classes could go back and review old material,” Sandler said.

Students at HHS make up a small fraction of the over two million students who take the ACT each year, and this standardized test has spurred nationwide controversy.

Monty Neill is the Executive Director of The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, or FairTest, a leading anti-standardized testing organization. In a telephone interview, Neill stated his belief that the ACT fails to fully evaluate students’ academic abilities.

“In the tested subjects of the ACT, there’s a whole lot that they simply don’t measure: things like critical thinking, the ability to do extended work, do research, write papers, things that are often necessary for college and for employment in the world,” Neill said. “What [schools] end up doing is neglecting important parts of those subjects and overemphasizing the subjects the ACT does measure.”

Appelman believes her time at HHS has taught her the basic concepts that the ACT tests: English, mathematics, reading, and science. Nevertheless, she, too, believes the test will put her at a stressful disadvantage when it comes to college.

“Personally, I’m not a good test-taker, and I get stressed out when I do take a test. If I take [the ACT] x amount of times and don’t do well, then I won’t be able to get into a school that I want to go to,” Appelman said.

Though educational needs have continually modernized since the test’s founding in 1959, Ed Colby, Senior Director of Public Relations for ACT, is confident that the ACT can pass the test of time.

“While the format and structure of the ACT test have not been changed, we regularly monitor high school curricula and college expectations to ensure that the ACT test continually reflects the skills and knowledge that are taught in schools and expected of incoming college freshmen,” Colby said via email.

After taking the ACT multiple times, Sandler appreciates her scores’ reflections of her effort, but agrees with Appelman and Neill’s concerns. She’s thankful that her scores will not be the sole consideration for college admissions.

“As someone who has taken the ACT several times, it says a lot about how willing you are to try and get a good score. But I do think it doesn’t accurately display your knowledge, so it’s nice that if you aren’t a great test-taker there’s other options,” Sandler said.

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The makers

In addition to student and national controversy, HHS is facing the facts.

According to data from the Minnesota Department of Education, the graduating class of 2016 at HHS had an average ACT composite score of 21.6, 1.9 points less than the previous year. These scores put HHS last in the Lake Conference by almost three points, and merely half a point above the state average.

Amidst these schoolwide statistics, Bullinger hopes to keep the emphasis on individual ACT scores.

“We aren’t going to use our average scores to apply to college— they may say something to the community about how prepared students are— but what matters more to me is if students are getting a 21, 22, or 23, those gateway scores to get into schools that they want,” Bullinger said. “Do I want a higher average? Absolutely. But before that, I want to make sure that everyone’s taking it and succeeding individually.”

Thus, HHS has begun to refocus curricular efforts towards success on the ACT in hopes to improve student performance.

According to Bullinger, in the fall of 2016, each department began to adopt plans to embed ACT-specific skills and strategies within the curriculum. As the middle of the school year approached, administration and staff evaluated and shared their progress.

Colby acknowledges the benefit that the refocus could hold.

“District and school efforts to improve ACT scores that are focused on strengthening the curriculum and improving learning, rather than on things such as test-taking skills and strategies, can provide a real benefit to students, not just in terms of their ACT scores, but also in terms of their readiness for success in college and career,” Colby said.

Many opponents of standardized testing, including Neill, disagree. He feels that such efforts will detract from genuine learning.

“The process of ‘teaching to the test’ is typically pretty boring. It disengages students, they’re less interested, and if they pick up on the kind of slanted, biased, narrow, visions of our society that you see often in these tests, that can further disengage many students,” Neill said.

Bullinger, too, understands concerns of ACT opponents such as Neill. But because of the test’s importance in college admissions, he feels that it’s essential for HHS to assist students.

“I don’t love the fact that it has bias, and I would like to find another assessment out there that didn’t. I would love it, frankly, if we could just say that grades and transcripts were enough, but that’s just the game of college admissions,” Bullinger said.

HHS’ cornerstone effort to increase student success on the ACT is the reinstatement of a mandatory and free ACT for all juniors on Apr. 19. Many students, including Appelman, are looking forward to taking advantage of the free ACT.

“I think that’s a smart decision, because not a lot of people have $56 that they can just give up to take the ACT, which gives everyone a chance to take it,” Appelman said.

All of these measures, in turn, seek to improve students’ success on the ACT, and thus their post-secondary success as a whole. Bullinger said that if the ACT wasn’t as paramount to college admissions, HHS would not be making these changes.

“The ACT, particularly due to the fact that so many institutions use it, is a key to open doors. It’s more accessible for us, and more importantly, it’s more valuable in terms of predicting how students are going to do,” Bullinger said. “We care that students do well when they’re here; we care more about what they do when they leave here.”

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The deciders

Beginning on Feb. 22, scores from the Feb. 11 ACT were released— scores that make a dramatic impact on the college admissions process. Many colleges are joining a greater nationwide movement to revise their admissions policies: the “test-optional” movement.

The most local member of the test-optional movement is Gustavus Adolphus College in Saint Peter, Minn. Bob Neuman, Senior Associate Director of Admissions, explained Gustavus’ reasoning for joining the movement.

“If you really look at predictive factors over a longer period of time than a four-hour test, the better thing to do is to put the weight on high school grades, your transcript, and rigor of your courses, and put standardized testing second,” Neuman said in a telephone interview. “You’ll always be rewarded for strong test scores, but if students feel their standardized test results don’t reflect their strong grades, then they can opt to not have them considered a part of the admissions process.”

As Ben Herstig, junior, begins his college applications, he takes test-optional policies into much consideration.

“My top school is test-score optional, which is really nice, because I’m going to take the ACT, but I don’t think it should be required to get into college,” Herstig said. “I think colleges should be test-score optional, and should focus more on achievements or the opportunities people have been given in school to prove themselves, rather than a three-hour timed test.”

The test-optional movement originated in 1984 at Bates College in Maine. After a 20-year Bates study published in 2005, the results have led to increasing support for these policies. According to a list published by FairTest, over 925 colleges have imposed “test-optional,” “test-flexible,” or similar policies.

The study found that the difference in GPA of Bates students between those who submitted standardized test scores versus those who did not was .05, and the difference in graduation rate was 0.1 percent.

But as college admissions officers weigh thousands of applications each year, they often find difficulty in measuring students’ abilities within the context of their school. For this reason, Colby deems it vital for colleges to continue including the ACT as a factor.

“ACT scores provide something that other factors cannot: a standardized measure of students’ academic readiness that colleges can use to compare students from different schools and states on a level basis. No other factor can provide that sort of standardized comparison,” Colby said.

Neill asserted that in addition to these results, test-optional policies increase opportunities for applicants with disabilities, from minority backgrounds, or other circumstances to be given consideration.

“The argument that somehow these tests are necessary in the admissions process is simply wrong,” Neill said. “It’s contradicted by the actual evidence.”

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