Aberdeen Class of 2017 Did Not Emphasize Performance on Standardized Tests

Aberdeen Central’s 2017 graduates knocked down our local ACT average. Aberdeen’s composite ACT score dropped from a 22.0 average in 2016 to 21.2 in 2017. The Class of 2017 scored 1.2 points lower on English, 0.6 lower on math, 1.0 lower on reading, and 0.5 lower on science. Only 26% met ACT’s requirements for being ready for college in all four areas, compared to 34% in 2016 and in the 30s all three years before that.

Fortunately, principal Jason Uttermark doesn’t blame my substitute teaching (shameless plug: I suggest that Aberdeen could boost those scores by calling me more often when they need a sub!). He blames the kids:

The class of 2017 did not score better than the past five classes in any subject, according to data from Central.

“Performing well on standardized tests was not their point of emphasis,” Uttermark said. “That cohort struggled with us on their Smarter Balanced scores. … We expected the ACT scores to be down a little bit with this group” [Katherine Grandstrand, “Aberdeen School Board: ACT Scores Decrease at Central,” Aberdeen American News, 2017.09.12].

Not their point of emphasis… oh, beautiful ed-admin euphemism!

But the euphemism is accurate. I don’t know these graduates as a group, but every teacher can tell you that each year’s cohort has a different overall personality and set of interests. Every now and then, a graduating class consists of a larger number of students who just don’t dig school, and while teachers will work hard to understand and overcome those kids’ different learning styles and needs, sometimes all the carrots and sticks in the educator’s tool bag won’t erase the gaps in performance between a given class and their predecessors.

These low ACT scores prove an exception to the usually supposed rule that more kids taking a standardized test means a lower average score. Dr. Uttermark told the school board last night that only 66% of Central’s 2017 grads took the ACT, the lowest participation rate in five years, and that fewer 2017 grads took the test over to try for a better score. Sometimes lower participation doesn’t signal that only the smartest kids are taking the test; in Aberdeen’s 2017 case, it appears that fewer kids taking the test meant fewer kids overall with the desire and skills to go to college.

School board vice-president Brad Olson asked at last night’s meeting if Central offers an ACT prep course. Actually, Aberdeen offers several ACT prep courses: they are known as the core high school curriculum. Pay attention in class, kids, and you should be able to smoke the ACT without having to shell out your money, your parents’ money, or the taxpayers’ money on a specialized test prep class.

8 Responses to Aberdeen Class of 2017 Did Not Emphasize Performance on Standardized Tests

  1. mike from iowa

    Biggest reason is because my eldest Grand Girlie graduated as a junior from RC Central and moved back to iowa. Now living with her Dad in iowa City. Yay, Clover.

  2. mike from iowa

    Clover graduated last year.

  3. Cory: “Pay attention in class, kids, and you should be able to smoke the ACT . . . ”
    I will partially disagree/play Devil’s advocate here. Intrinsic to doing well on the test is understanding some strategy/gamesmanship in taking the test. Unfortunately, only being well versed in content is not the only key to success.

    Just to ask the follow-up question: what WAS the emphasis of the class? What DID they care about?

  4. Fair point, O devilish O! Indeed, in my own math classes, I have occasionally mentioned to students particular math tricks and traps to watch for on the ACT and other standardized tests.

    I would love to be able to quantify the relative contributions of content knowledge and strategy/gamesmanship to ACT success. If the latter is not significant, then we don’t need to invest public dollars in a test prep class. If the latter is significant, then we should call into question any use of ACT scores for college admissions, scholarships, or any other important decisions… unless, of course, the decision-makers are being honest and saying, “We’re using the ACT for admissions because we are looking for kids who are good not just at reciting what they’ve learned but also know how to figure out how a test works.”

    Suppose strategy/gamesmanship could account for 10% of one’s score. Then setting an academic admissions cutoff at 24 would introduce some important error. There would be kids who are good at pure academics but ignore/fail at gamesmanship who would score a 26 on a pure academic test but would score a 23 on the gamey ACT. There would be kids who don’t work as hard on content and would score a 23 on the pure academic test but can use their gaming skills to pull a 26 on the ACT. (Rough numbers, of course, assuming the ACT point scale is linear; your mileage may vary.)

    Either way, do we want to spend public school resources teaching test strategy alongside or in place of content? Can we justify rigorous ACT analysis and gaming as part of our critical thinking curriculum?

    I recall figuring out how the computer scored the state’s first online writing test back in the early 2000s. I saw how kids could engineer their essays to play the computer’s game and improve their scores. Of course, the tricks I figured out involved understanding grammar, vocabulary, punctuation, and style well enough that a kid smart enough to game the essay question probably had to be smart enough to write a good essay in the first place without gaming the program. Is the strategy behind the ACT less content-specific and more game-specific?

    What was the emphasis of the 2017 graduates in high school? That is a very good question, for which I can offer no firmly evidenced answer.

  5. Maybe if we gave them even more standardized test the scores would improve. . .

    There is nothing more drool than standardized computer based tests and we are testing the kids for hours upon end now. You take a kid, 16 or 17 years old, sit them down at the beginning of the year to 8 to 10 hours of computerized testing, spend hours prepping them to take standardized test, do it again around Christmas and once again at the end of the year and this is what you get.

    Standardized test scores dropping is not the fault of the kids, its us. We are testing the kids to the point of failure. They are quitting and I don’t blame them. Its a form of protest.

  6. “They are quitting… protest”—well, we’ll need to see more than one year of data to support that claim.

    I am willing to accept the idea that few if any students are drooling at the prospect of more test prep.

  7. Remember the ACT is to predict success in college – not to assess content knowledge.. In reality, college success is not exclusively a factor of what you know, but more expansively of other skills needed to succeed in academic settings. Speaking for the English area, the test will at times ask questions that the reader has insufficient information AT THAT POINT OF THE TEST to answer. That question’s answer becomes clear in later text. Now that seems “unfair” or “games playing,” but IF the student follows best practices and skims before answering the questions, that trick is mitigated. It also tests if a student is willing to go back and change an answer based on new information (which I believe is THE skill adults should strive for – adjusting theories and paradigms based on evidence as it is presented). So I may dismissively refer to “tricks” on the ACT in my class to help do better on the test, but at their roots, they are best practices that are implicitly “tested” by the ACT.

    I am also surprised by how engaged in test prep students become when put in the context that better scores mean more opportunity. Working hard to achieve more to better one’s pathway options seems like a good lesson. As teachers and learning communities, instead of being used by the test, let us take control and use the test for OUR purposes.

    That being said, I cannot agree more with OldSarge that overuse is wrong and must be guarded against. We have so many more valuable uses of class time. I blame NCLB for this enduring mindset stuck so much in evaluation that it neglected the actual practice of teaching and the wonderful diversity of learning.

  8. Good reminder, O, about aptitude vs. achievement. That would increase the value of the strategy side of the equation by indicating the extent to which students will be able to strategize their way through the various challenges college poses.

    But even there, we’re talking about critical thinking skills (adjusting theories and paradigms, going back and changing answers to fit new evidence presented) that ought to already be embedded in the HS curriculum and thus ought not require additional test prep courses. Hire more teachers like O, and you won’t need test prep; you’ll get it every day in the regular classroom.