Posted on October 20, 2004

ACT Gap Persists In D.M. District

Megan Hawkins, Des Moines Register, Oct. 19

Neris Martinez knows what he needs to get into college: a higher score on his college entrance exam.

Like many students — especially minorities — the Des Moines North High School senior will retake the ACT this year in hopes of boosting his score by several points.

His goal? Catapulting his dismal score of 13 — a strong indication Martinez would struggle in college — to at least 20 to earn admission to college.

Martinez, who wants to study architecture, knows that a college education will help him earn a high-paying job and succeed in his future career. Numerous studies show that people with at least some college experience out-earn those with only a high school diploma; the same studies show that minorities are least likely to go to college.

An ACT preparation course is being added to Des Moines’ high school curriculum next fall in an effort to help boost all students’ scores on the exam.

Scoring well on college entrance exams is a key piece of the college admission process. Yet in Iowa and elsewhere, the gap between minority and white students’ college entrance exam scores remains stubbornly wide.

“There is a gap,” said Ed Colby , ACT spokesman. “We’ve done some research, and the biggest factor (nationally) seems to be the schools and education available to those students.”

In Des Moines last year, the average ACT score was 21.6 out of a possible 36 points. White students earned an average score of 22.4, while the average for African-American students was 18.5. Asian students’ average ACT score was 19.9; Mexican-American students’, 18.9. A score of 20 or higher indicates probable success in college, according to Iowa City-based testing company ACT.

Suburban school districts did not have enough minority students to report results.

Iowa’s average composite score was 22. Only two other states testing over half their student population — Minnesota and Wisconsin — posted higher average composite scores. The national average composite score was 20.9. ACT released a report Thursday showing that only 22 percent of ACT-tested high school graduates are prepared for college courses, according to ACT benchmarks. ACT officials said high schools must adopt more rigorous coursework.

Des Moines educators are taking steps to prepare more minorities for upper-level courses, which give students the knowledge they need to tackle the ACT and close the gap. Central Campus’ Prep Academy, for example, now uses multiple indicators to identify students for upper-level courses, which has opened the classes to more minorities.

Some minority students struggle on the ACT because they are still learning English. Others, who often live in low-income school districts with fewer resources than those in wealthier suburbs, are not adequately prepared for the test or college, educators said.

Martinez is working hard to boost his test score. He participated in the Upward Bound program, which helped him study for the ACT. He is working independently with a math teacher, expanding his vocabulary and taking practice tests online. He said his math and science skills are strong, but English is a problem.

“I’m not the fastest reader, and when you have a time limit, you’re thinking, ‘Oh, my God, can I finish it?’ “ said Martinez, whose native language is Spanish.

Educators are working to encourage students to take the ACT. Many counselors advise students to take the test more than once. Some said the minority academic achievement gap occurs because students have low confidence or don’t believe college is feasible.

“We just need to have that expectation for them,” said Kimber Foshe , counselor at Des Moines Hoover High School. “I try to tell them it’s a low-risk opportunity. If you make a mistake, it’s okay. But you have to believe in yourself.”

“Some (minorities) take it as a joke,” said Telisha Young , a Hoover senior. “It could be that they don’t think they’ll really use it.”

The ACT measures students’ reasoning and thinking skills in four areas: English, math, reading and science. Students who take four years of English and three years each of math (algebra and higher), science, and social studies tend to perform better on the test than those who take less than the recommended number of courses.

“Students who take more challenging coursework tend to learn more and have more advanced skills and knowledge, and that’s what the ACT tests,” Colby said. “It’s not a test of ability or intelligence. It’s a test of academic skills and what you know.”

Students must master basic skills at the elementary level and should be encouraged to take challenging classes, said Colette Love , Des Moines’ executive director of high school programs and academic achievement. Love said she wants to involve more community groups in tutoring and in helping low-income students go on field trips and experience things that would help them relate to test questions on college entrance exams.

“The kids who need it the most are not getting the help they need. It’s time and money they don’t have,” Love said. “It’s part of a cycle, and it’s our job to break that cycle.”

Most colleges use the test as one indicator of student success, said Jim Sumner , Grinnell College’s dean of admission and financial aid.

“It’s a way to compare students,” Sumner said. “This is the same test, given on the same day, under presumably the same conditions.

“The best predictor of student success in college is how well they do in high school. We look at the courses they take, the grades they earn, and with the ACT or SAT, the ability to predict success goes up markedly.”

Some colleges, like Iowa State University, offer special programs to give students with low ACT scores a chance to prove themselves. Most colleges do not take the minority achievement gap into account when admitting students, admissions officials said.

Nationally, the achievement gap is shrinking. Black students’ average score improved by two-tenths of a point last year and one-tenth of a point the year before, Colby said.