Minority Students Still Lag On ACTs

Madelaine Jerousek, DesMoinesRegister.com, Aug. 18

Iowa retained its lofty national ranking among students taking the ACT Assessment to enter college, but scores for minority students lagged, figures for the high school graduating class of 2004 show.

Iowa’s black students recorded an average composite score of 18.5 , up from 17.5 a year ago. Hispanic students had an average composite score of 19.4 , down from 19.8 . White Iowans’ average composite score was 23 , up from 22.1 last year.

The ACT is the main college entrance test taken by Iowa students.

Overall, the average composite score for Iowa students was a 22, the third-highest score among states where more than half of students take the ACT. Minnesota and Wisconsin had slightly higher scores. The national composite was 20.9.

“We are concerned about African-American and Hispanic scores,” said Judy Jeffrey, interim Iowa education director. “As our population is changing, we really need to make some efforts to look at minority students and the rigor of their high school course work.”

Jeffrey said the one-year gains in black student achievement aren’t meaningful unless they continue.

Similar gaps exist nationwide between white students and minorities. They are particularly important because a score of 20 or higher indicates probable success in college, according to Iowa City-based testing company ACT.

Connie Kidman, a Latino and bilingual student liaison in the Des Moines school district, said schools must hire minority and bilingual teachers, raise expectations of minority students, and strengthen outreach programs.

“We start losing kids in middle school,” she said. “I think that work needs to start when they’re younger.”

Nearly 36 percent of the 1,011 black students in Iowa’s 2004 high school graduating class took the ACT in 2003-04, while about 32 percent of Hispanic students took the test, state data show. Overall, 67 percent of Iowa graduates were tested last year.

Robert Smith, co-chairman of a task force in Waterloo charged with closing the achievement gap between black and white students, said better parental involvement is critical to high school success for minorities.

“I think teachers have to have high expectations, and parents have to have high expectations,” he said. “If you can get those two forces working together, you’ll come out with a pretty good student when high school is over.”

State leaders said Tuesday that the state’s high schools must increase the rigor of their curricula, despite 2004 being the sixth straight year that Iowa students’ composite score was 22.

“While these scores outline a strong performance, we must do better,” Gov. Tom Vilsack said. “The rest of the country is catching up academically, and the competition is growing. We share a responsibility to make sure Iowa remains a national leader in education.”

About 34 percent of Iowa students taking the ACT Assessment did not take the core classes recommended for college success, according to the testing company. Core classes are defined as four years of English and at least three years each of mathematics, social studies and natural sciences. Nationwide, about 38 percent of students fall short of taking the recommended classes.

Iowa students who didn’t take core classes received lower average scores on the ACT, which is considered one of the best indicators of college preparation.

A recent report from the Iowa Learns Council—a task force of state education leaders—recommended that school districts statewide evaluate their high school curricula.

“It’s pretty clear that we’re going to need to expect higher levels of skill in the communications, math and science of our graduates in order for them to succeed in college and the work force,” Jeffrey said.

Iowa has set minimum standards for what should be offered in high schools. However, the state has not set minimum graduation requirements.

The ACT Assessment is scored on a scale of 1 to 36. The test is the primary college-entrance exam used in 25 states. Students are tested in four subjects: English, math, reading and science.

An optional writing test will be added in February.

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