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Posted at 03:00 PM ET, 08/22/2012

What new ACT college readiness scores really mean

This was written by Robert A. Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, known as FairTest, a non-profit organization dedicated to ending the misuse of standardized tests.

By Bob Schaeffer

It makes good sense to use multiple measures to evaluate education policies, just as for assessing students, teachers, and schools. The stagnant trend in ACT college readiness scores just released is yet another piece of evidence that test-driven K-12 education in the U.S. is a sweeping, expensive failure. This conclusion is consistent with reports from the National Academy of Sciences. It is also supported by data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Advocates for high-stakes testing programs made two fundamental claims. They said a focus on standardized exam results, through controversial initiatives such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and state graduation tests, would improve U.S. students’ overall academic performance. At the same time, they promoted these policies as a primary tool to narrow gaps between racial groups.

But ACT averages for the high school class of 2012 (see chart below) show that neither of these predictions is close to becoming true. Overall ACT test scores are unchanged since 2008. Gaps between white and Asian American students, on the one hand, and African American, Hispanic and Native American, on the other, have grown slightly larger. Clearly current K-12 policies are not working.

Rational policymakers would look at the evidence and change course. Last spring’s ACT test-takers were in second grade when NCLB became law. The test-and-punish regime was in place for their entire pubic school careers. The distinct lack of progress in this college readiness measure should undermines any remaining credibility of die-hard testing defenders.

Yet instead of abandoning what is clearly the wrong track for improving U.S. schools, officials are actually putting more weight on standardized tests. Recent U.S. Department of Education waivers of the controversial NCLB law require states to use tests for more high-stakes purposes, including evaluating teachers. Many states have also increased standardized exam requirements. The still-being-written assessments that will be attached to the new Common Core State Standards will further increase the level of testing.

During this election season when public officials pay (a bit) more attention to their constituents, it’s a particularly appropriate time for voters to ask their elected representatives, “Why are policy-makers doubling down on a failed strategy? How much more data do you need to understand this approach is not working?”

2012 COLLEGE BOUND SENIORS AVERAGE ACT SCORES

Approximately 1.66 million test takers

COMPOSITE SCORE FIVE-YEAR SCORE TREND (2008 – 2012)

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2012 ACT score / Change since 2008

ALL TEST-TAKERS . . . 21.1 . . . . . .. . . . 0.0

Asian . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 23.6 . . . . . . . . . . + 0.7

White . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 22.4 . . . . . . . . . . + 0.3

African-American . . . . . . . . 17.0 . . . . . . . . . . + 0.1

American Indian . . . . . . . . . 18.4 . . . . . . . . . . - 0.6

Hispanic . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18.9 . . . . . . . . . . + 0.2

source: ACT, The Condition of College & Career Readiness 2012

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