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Despite US Fixation on Testing, ACT Results Slip; ACT Board Doing Just Fine

October 27, 2018

On October 17, 2018, ACT released a report, “Condition of College and Career Readiness 2018.”

Beginning with the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in January 2002, standardized testing has increasingly been the central focus of public education, with nationally-normed tests such as the ACT becoming the raison d’etre for secondary schools.

ACT acknowledges as much:

Over the past decade, ACT has experienced unprecedented growth in the number of students tested as well as growth in partnerships with states, districts, and high schools.

The test scores are supposed to be forever rising. However, that is not how it works; despite the ever-narrowing of public education to both covert and overt test prep, testing, and retesting, those scores will plateau, and all of that test-centrism will yield diminishing returns.

Consider this summary info ACT’s 2018 report:

Performance of 2018 Graduates

  • Slightly fewer ACT-tested graduates were ready for college coursework this year than last year. The percentage of students meeting at least three of the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks in the four core subject areas was 38% for the 2018 US high school graduating class, down from 39% last year but the same as in 2016.
  • A higher percentage of students this year than in recent years fell to the bottom of the preparedness scale, showing little or no readiness for college coursework. Thirty-five percent of 2018 graduates met none of the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks, up from 31% in 2014 and from 33% last year.
  • The national average ACT Composite score for the 2018 graduating class was 20.8, down from 21.0 last year but the same as in 2016. Average scores in English, mathematics, reading, and science all dropped between 0.1 and 0.3 point compared to last year.
  • Readiness levels in math and English have steadily declined since 2014.
  • Readiness levels in reading and science have varied over the past five years, with no clear upward or downward trends.
  • The average Composite score for Asian students rose this year compared to last year. Average scores for students in all other racial/ethnic groups, however, were down.
  • College readiness levels remain dismal for underserved learners (low-income, minority, and/or first-generation college students—who make up 43% of all ACT-tested graduates). Once again, fewer than a fourth of underserved graduates showed overall readiness for college coursework.

2018 Graduates Tested

  • More than 1.9 million US high school graduates (1,914,817)—55 percent of the 2018 graduating class nationally—took the ACT test. Those numbers are down slightly from last year, primarily due to changes in statewide testing.
  • The distribution of examinees by race/ethnicity changed little between 2017 and 2018. Slightly more than half (52%) of ACT-tested 2018 graduates identified themselves as White. The next largest group was Hispanic/Latino students (16%), followed by Black/African American students (13%).

And here is something: Students exiting the classroom are not planning a return as teachers:

Once again this year, only 4 percent of ACT-tested graduates indicated they plan a career as an educator. These numbers point to no relief for the US teacher shortage, which is projected to grow to more than 100,000 educators by 2021.

ACT does not acknowledge that the very same test-centric atmosphere that fill its coffers is the one that which zaps the joy out of teaching and learning and contributes to a punitive professional atmosphere for teachers, thereby putting quite the damper on classroom teaching as a career choice. Thus, it is a bit ironic that ACT includes better teaching conditions and “holistic learning” among its report recommendations:

Recommendations for Districts, States, and Policymakers

ACT score data over the years have consistently shown that educational outcomes among US high school graduates—in the form of academic readiness for college and career—are stagnant, and this year’s resultssuggest they may even be going downhill. Policymakers and educators must take strong, swift actions to reverse this course. The goal should be for all young people to have access to a high-quality, holistic education that will get them on target for college and career readiness by the time they graduate from high school. To help meet this goal, ACT recommends the following:

1. Give educators the resources they need to help improve educational outcomes. For educators to have the desired impact on all of the students they serve, they must be given the proper resources. Funding for schools and education must be increased, not decreased. States and districts should provide plentiful professional development opportunities so that teachers may improve their craft and increase their positive impact. And the teaching profession must be elevated, with higher salaries and greater levels of respect, to attract talented new instructors to the occupation. …

4. Ensure that students’ education is holistic and addresses the needs of the “whole learner.” Mastering knowledge and skills in core subject areas is obviously essential in preparing students to succeed in college and career, but social and emotional learning (SEL) skills also play a critical role in allowing young people to reach their potential. Schools should consider assessment of students’ SEL skills as a developmental tool to ensure that all of each student’s needs are being identified and addressed. Also, to assist in SEL skills development, schools should consider scaling up nonacademic “wraparound” services from local community providers in areas such as mental health, family engagement, mentoring, afterschool programming, and career planning.

Scores are stagnating, even declining, yet ACT does not see itself as part of the problem.

Schools need more funding, but guess what has become an oversized funding priority?

Testing. Test prep. And retesting.

Sure, ACT has a number of suggestions for the American classroom. Even so, it may come as no surprise that reducing the amount of testing is not among them.

Testing in earlier grades, however, did make the list:

2. Assess student learning and implement improvement strategies starting early in students’ educational careers. ACT research suggests that if students are not on target for college and career readiness by the time they reach middle school, it may be too late for them to become ready by the time they graduate from high school. Assessing what students have learned, and implementing strategies to help them improve their skills and get on target, must begin in elementary school. Early
assessment and intervention are critical to improving educational outcomes.

Feeding from the testing trough is paying off quite well for ACT. According to its 2015-16 tax form, ACT garnered $340M in revenue.

One board member serving 2 hours per week was paid $40.5K– what is for many teachers an annual salary. Board members working 3 hours per week earned between $47.5K and $61.5K. Even “former” board members are still on the payroll for between $15K and $51.8K for 3 hours a week.

Chief measurement officer, Richard Patz, received $786K in total compensation, and the former CFO, John Whitmore, and former president, Jon Erickson, remain on the payroll at $767K and $747K, respectively.

Testing. Test prep. And retesting:

A sweet deal for current and former ACT officers and board members.

For the American classroom, not so much.


Illustration by Kenny Yi


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Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of two other books: A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?. You should buy these books. They’re great. No, really.

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  1. helfrederick permalink

    Well said, as always! Thanks so much for your commentary. – A teacher in Los Angeles

  2. “The test scores are supposed to be forever rising. However, that is not how it works…” The likely key to understanding how test companies make their massive annual money: they convince policy makers that in a magical world ALL children can surely rise to the top…and efforts to prove this should be stubbornly made until the bottom no longer exists.

  3. Jill Reifschneider permalink

    Well said.

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