Nathan: Congratulations and concerns about college entrance scores

Congratulations and concerns. That’s how we might react to recently released Minnesota high school graduates’ performance on the ACT college entrance test.

Where do the congratulations come in? Minnesota seniors ranked first among the 40 states where at least 30 percent of seniors took the test. The percentage of students taking the ACT in those thirty-nine states ranged from 14 to 100 percent. Minnesota’s high school graduates also rank above national average in areas of the ACT: English, reading, mathematics and science.

ACT’s research suggests that students who do well on their test are more likely to earn As and Bs in their first year of college.

ACT says that 74 percent of Minnesota 2012 high school graduates took their test. That compares to 100 percent of seniors in nine states, including North Dakota.

Nine states had a somewhat higher average score than the 22.8 that Minnesota students earned. All the states with a higher average had a far lower percentage of students taking the test (from nine to 27 percent).

The conventional wisdom is that if virtually all of a state’s high school seniors or graduates take a test, the average will be lower than if only those who are planning to enter a college or university take the test.

That is not always true. For example, graduates of four states earned a 22.1 average, and had widely varying participation percentages. Seventy-one percent of Wisconsin grads took the test, 63 percent in Iowa, 25 percent in California and 21 percent in Maryland.

Minnesota’s high national rank is a tribute to students, faculty and families. Congratulations on that. What about concerns?

• Only 36 percent of Minnesota graduates scored at the level in all four areas that predict they will do well as college freshman.

• Less than half of Minnesota graduates (42 percent) scored at the level in science that ACT says predicts strong college freshman grades.

• More than a third of graduates (38 percent) scored lower in mathematics than ACT says will predict a good college freshman grade in that field.

• The widely reported achievement gap shows up here. too. Fifty-nine percent of white, but only 36 percent of Asian American, 34 percent of Hispanic, 30 percent of American Indian and only 16 percent of African American graduates met at least three of the benchmarks.

You can find more about results from Minnesota and other states at www.act.org/newsroom/data/2012/states/minnesota.html.

A test score is only one predictor of how well a student will do in college. At a recent meeting of college and high school faculty, Andrew Nesset, then Dean at Century College, pointed out that colleges have found that tests don’t measure the persistence, planning and responsibility skills that successful students need. Colleges study test scores. But they also look at grades and other factors to see if students are well prepared.

It’s also important to remember that most of Minnesota’s two-year public colleges don’t require that students take the ACT test. These two-year colleges prepare many young people for good jobs.

The results give us reasons to be proud. The scores also point to areas where more work is necessary, with a variety of students.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, joe@centerforschoolchange.org.

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