University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

ACT scores may decline… But for good reasons!

In The View from the OEP on September 6, 2017 at 12:39 pm


Tomorrow, the state will release the ACT scores for the graduating class of 2017.  Here at OEP, we predict that the scores will be slightly lower than for prior graduating classes, BUT we think there are good reasons for that and caution against over-reacting to any decline.

We will put out another blog tomorrow reviewing the results, but wanted to spend some time today setting the stage for the results.

This report will present results for the first graduating class that had 100% of kids take the ACT in grade 11, so it provides some new insight into our high school graduates.  In prior years, students self-selected to take the ACT, and students who felt they were not on ‘the college track’ may not have taken the test.

We love how Arkansas is providing the opportunity for all students to take the ACT for free during 11th grade, and if the statewide scores are lower than for previous graduating classes we recommend considering the causes and examining the data carefully.

The students represented in the upcoming report were in 11th grade in 2015-16, which was the first year that the state tested 100% of students on the ACT for free during the school day.  The number of Arkansas juniors taking the ACT jumped from 8,700 in the prior year to over 31,000, an increase of over 350%!  The numbers reported in the 11th grade report seemed positive, and everyone was pleased when the scores were essentially the same as in prior years when fewer students had been tested.

So, if these students were scoring similarly to prior classes when they were juniors, why do we think the graduating class report will show lower performance compared to previous graduating classes?

We have two reasons:

Different group of 11th graders.  In prior years, only 30% of the graduates who did take the ACT had taken the ACT in their junior year. For this graduating class, however, over 90% of graduates took the ACT in their junior year.

One-time score vs. most recent score.  The scores for the graduating class report represent the most recent ACT score for students who indicated that they were graduating. Like we said in our previous blogs, students usually do better the second (or third or fourth) time they take the ACT.  Since many students who are interested in going to college take the ACT multiple times in an attempt to increase their score, the higher performers will likely have taken the ACT at least once since their junior year and have gotten a better score. Students not planning on going to college, however, may not have taken the ACT in the past, but in this group everyone did. These students probably did not re-take, so the score they received in 11th grade would have been their only, and therefore, most recent score.

How can we tell if students are performing better or worse than before if different groups of kids were tested?

Due to the differences between the students tested, here at the OEP we recommend examining the performance over time of students who are similar to those who would have taken the ACT before the state provided testing for all.  These students are most likely represented by the “Core or More” level of preparation.  “Core or More” students report completing four or more years of English, and three or more years each of math, social studies, and natural science.  Since a broader population of graduates completed the ACT, the percentage of students who are “Core or More” will likely be smaller, but the students themselves will have taken a similar course load.

One great thing about the ACT is that it lets us compare the performance of Arkansas graduates to the performance of graduates in other states.  We have to be careful, however, to only compare Arkansas to the 18 other states that are testing all (or over 90%) of their students, and consider the demographic characteristics of those states as well.We will have this comparison for you in tomorrow’s blog.

School and District reports are not provided by ACT, but can be obtained from your district. In prior years, some schools tested all students on the ACT, while others allowed students to self-select if they wanted to take the exam. Now that all students are given the opportunity, it makes the comparison of scores between districts more equitable.

So What:

We LOVE that Arkansas is giving every student the opportunity to get a picture of his/her readiness for college and careers, and doing it early enough that students can use the information when making decisions. The statewide scores will likely go down due to the inclusion of students who may not have taken the ACT without the state providing it. We think it is important to focus on the positive outcomes of the program rather than any decrease in scores.  More kids are getting more information about their achievement, and districts and schools have better information about the performance of their graduates.

Now What?

  1. Check out tomorrow’s blog where we will review the scores!
  2. Get the ACT info for your school/district and check for trends over time – being careful to examine “Core or More” students separately.
  3. Make sure your school/district is sharing information with all students about practicing for the test and the benefits of taking the ACT more than once!
  4. Don’t freak out- Arkansas is headed in the right direction by increasing access to, and transparency with, the ACT.



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