College Bound & Clueless?


By Svitlana Hrabovsky

Photo courtesy of ccarlstead.

For high school graduates who were about to enter the collegiate world, 2013 was a somewhat rough year. According to the average ACT scores of that year, the students were not prepared for college. In 2013, ACT Composite Scores were at their lowest in at least five years, with average scores dropping to as low as 20.9. In the following year, scores only somewhat improved, increasing by .1 point.

However, despite the minor progress made in a year, such low test scores have alarmed educators nationwide and prompted questions on the “readiness” of students entering college. Yet, what is it exactly that prepares a student for the rigors of a collegiate education?

The ACT’s primary purpose is to test a student’s preparedness prior to them entering college. The exam is one of the most prominent and is used by colleges nationwide to determine admissions as well as course placement for any particular student. In 2014, 57 percent of graduating high school students took the exam. According to the ACT’s Condition of College & Career Readiness 2014 report, this is about an 18 percent increase in the number of ACT-tested graduates since 2010.

However, despite the importance of the exam, it is not the only factor used to determine whether or not a student is prepared for the hurdles that college classes may have to offer. Edward Colby, director of Public Relations at the ACT, spoke to BTR about the issue and stressed that ACT test scores should not be used as the primary determinant of college readiness.

“The ACT is only one factor,” he states. “It is designed to show what a student has learned up to that point in their [career].”

Colleges seem to understand this, and only rely on the ACT scores as a fraction of a bigger picture. Other factors are also used, including previous courses taken, GPA, extracurricular activities, essays or video submissions, references, etc. Colby says, “No way is the ACT intended to be the sole factor or even the biggest factor to show how ready a student is for college.”

If that is the case, at what point in a student’s career does the preparation for the exam itself come into play? The answer to that question can take us as far back as elementary school. ACT Aspire, for instance, is a set of standardized tests that begin at the elementary school level, specifically third grade.

These tests “help to assess student skills that they learn in core courses in an effort to see if they are ready by the time they enter high school, and allows teachers to help students that are off track, before it is too late,” says Colby. “The most important factor, however, is that students are taking classes that are challenging enough to prepare them for their future endeavors.”

However, it is the responsibility of the school district, as well as the state, to make sure that schools are offering their students the proper courses which can allow them to move forward.

“Preparation for assessments is also important because they have high stakes decisions attached to them,” says Marni Bromberg, senior research assistant at Education Trust, a non-profit advocacy organization that promotes high academic achievement for all students, particularly for students of color and low-income. However, certain disparities exist as to who has access to these preparations, which often aids in creating a racial gap in test scores.

In 2014 African Americans received the lowest average ACT/SAT test scores. On the SATs African Americans averaged 1072 (out of 1600); Latin Americans came in second with an average score of 1126, whereas Caucasians came in first, with an average score of 1162.

“Schools have a lot of power to make sure that students are exposed to the opportunities and experiences that will prove they will do better on those tests,” says Bromberg. “Exposing students to rigorous and relevant learning opportunities would do a lot to minimize the gaps.”

Schools across the nation are beginning to understand that the change begins with them, and are implementing alterations to help better prepare students for assessment exams, as well as to offer equal opportunities to students from varying backgrounds. For example, College Board, a not-for-profit organization that connects students to college success and opportunity, is taking a number of efforts to minimize those disparities as much as possible. One way in which they are doing this is by redesigning their assessment so that it is more aligned with the expectations one may find in high school.

In addition, Bromberg reveals that College Board is partnering with Khan Academy, an online platform that provides students with an interactive way of learning through the process of practice exercises, instructional videos, and a personalized learning dashboard.

“Many classrooms have worked to integrate lessons from Khan into classrooms, as a supplemental assistance to kids. It is more personalized because children can move through the lesson at their own pace.”

Offering Advanced Placement (AP) courses is another way in which schools can better prepare their students for college-level courses. However, the practices for allowing students to enroll in AP courses vary between state districts and schools.

Federal Way, a district of Washington state, has recently switched their approach to AP courses to an opt-out policy, says Bromberg. This allows students who have scored well on the 10th grade proficiency exam, as well as students who may not have done so well, to be able to register for an AP class. Since altering their policy, “Federal Way has seen huge increases in AP enrollment, with particularly large increases in low income families,” says Bromberg.

Even though ACT scores are not the deciding factor of whether or not a student is fully ready for college, they still serve an important role in assessing a student’s readiness as they endeavor into the world of higher education.

Preparation for such exams, however, begins within the schools themselves. To better prepare students, schools must equip themselves with the proper tools, as well as to offer students the same learning opportunities.