Gazette opinion: College readiness gap reveals core problems

2014-08-24T06:00:00Z Gazette opinion: College readiness gap reveals core problems The Billings Gazette
August 24, 2014 6:00 am

Scores from Montana’s first year of ACT testing for all public high school graduates show plenty of room for improvement. Yet Montana’s overall scores are about average for states that test all their grads.

According to the ACT college testing organization, the average national composite score for the class of 2014 was 21. But only 57 percent of graduates nationwide took the test, generally test takers already were planning on going to college.

Montana grads had an average composite score of 20.5, but the state tested 100 percent of its graduates. Among the 11 states testing 100 percent of grads, Montana ranks fifth – below Utah (20.8), Colorado (20.6), Illinois (20.7), and North Dakota (20.6). But Montana grads outscored Wyoming (20.1), Tennessee (19.8), North Carolina (18.9), Mississippi (19), Michigan (20.1) and Kentucky (19.9).

None of these test-every-grad states exceeded the national average. But each of these state’s tests provide a better picture of how K-12 schools are performing than in states where students self-select to take the ACT.

In this apples-to-apples comparison of test-all states, Montana’s lowest average section score was 19.3 in English. Six of the 11 states did better and two others tied with Montana.

Montana’s highest average score was 21.1 in reading, bested only by Utah with a score of 21.3. The national average score in reading was 21.3.

Alarming report

While the ACT scores themselves don’t look so bad, the ACT College Readiness Report for Montana is truly alarming.

Only 23 percent of Montana students met ACT college readiness benchmarks in all four subjects – English, reading, math and science. The nationwide number wasn’t much better: 26 percent. More Montana students fell short of the benchmarks in science and math.

To improve readiness for post-secondary education:

- School districts must improve science and math education.

- Montana education leaders should take a close look at what the best-performing test-all states are doing and adopt best practices.

- The state also must figure out how to help Native American students be more successful in K-12 schools. As Gazette reporter Derek Brouwer told readers last week, the ACT College Readiness Report shows that only 6 percent of Native Americans met the math benchmark, compared with 43 percent of white students.

- Promote the core. Grads taking a core curriculum consisting of four years of English, and three years each of math, social studies and science were much more likely to meet college readiness benchmarks. In math, for example, 49 percent of core-taking grads met the benchmark, compared with 5 percent of non-core grads, according ACT.

Previous research in Montana has shown that students who skip math in their senior year tend to be unprepared to pass college-level math courses after graduation. This math problem can be solved with better planning and more rigorous standards.

Collaboration between the Montana University System and the Office of Public Instruction allowed the state to get this more comprehensive picture of student/school achievement. Now that the first year of data has come in, state and local education leaders must take the next steps: Use the information to raise college/career readiness and close the achievement gaps for Montana students.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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