AHS sees progress with ACT scores despite state numbers say

Published 6:30 am Friday, November 1, 2019

Austin Public Schools performed well in comparison to the state average despite what the average composite score showed in a recent report issues by the state.

The Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) released the results of the ACT college entrance exam scores, where it showed that among the 17 states including 90 percent or more of students taking the exam earned an average composite score of 21.4, an increase of 0.1 points from 2018.

Nationally, 52 percent of 2019 high school graduates that took the ACT earning an average composite score of 20.7, and scores for the state’s student groups were very close to scores from 2018, meaning gaps between student groups stayed the same.

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“While Minnesota’s overall score is strong again, we still have work to do so that students of all backgrounds are ready for what’s next, whether that’s career or college,” said Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker. “We can be proud but we cannot be satisfied. We will continue to learn from areas where we see promising results and expand opportunities for all students.”

Austin High School’s average composite score stayed consistently around 19 according to data provided by Corey Haugen, director for research evaluation and assessment from 2015 to 2019. From an administration perspective, this only painted a partial look into how students were performing on college entrance exams.

“There are a lot of things that are influencing average scores,” Haugen said. “Many of our students who were performing on the lower-end usually opt to not take the ACT. We need to realize that APS doesn’t look like the rest of the state.”

In the 2019 graduating class, test scores reflected a half-point increase from the previous graduating class, which was an improvement, said John Alberts, executive director for educational services.

“Just in general, a half-point increase on a population of our scale is pretty great,” Alberts said. “A huge positive is that our students actually do score better than the state average. It’s telling us that access is doing something.”

Understanding AHS’ student population, means that there were multiple underlying factors that influenced the trending ACT scores, which reflects on the school district and the public’s perception of its success, such as financial obstacles, access to opportunities among other things.

When breaking down the data further, the top 10 to 50 percent of students at AHS were garnering average scores that were higher than the state average composite scores.

Many of the average composite scores were actually ranging between good and excellent for submitting to four-year universities. For Austin’s high school students, there were plenty of enrichment opportunities that they are able to take advanced classes.

“Those are our students who were always planning to attend a four-year school after graduation,” Alberts said. “When you add students who may not have had that same opportunity or were better off from a financially stable background, they may have dismissed themselves entirely from taking the test because they never considered college to be a possible option for them.”

For example, students who took Algebra 1, Algebra 2 and geometry typically achieved higher ACT mathematics scores than students who take less than three years of math. Additionally, students who take more advanced math courses, substantially increase their ACT math score.

In 2019, graduates who took advanced courses scored an average composite score of 26.5, which was above the state average composite score of 24. Comparatively, students who took three years of math scored an average of 25.8, which was still above the state average of 22 for similar students who decided not to proceed with advanced courses that challenged them.

The ACT released a report in 2016 (the most recent one they created) that provided insight into college readiness levels of ACT-tested high school graduates from 2012 to 2016. According to the ACT report, in 2012, students who reported family income of $80,000 or higher, had an ACT composite score of 23.4 compared to the score of 19.8 for students who reported an income less than $80,000. In 2016, the average ACT composite score was 23.6 for higher income students, and 19.5 from lower income students.

This means that the achievement gap between higher and lower income students increased slightly over the last five years. The ACT reported that the population of students taking the test increased by 25 percent over the last five years, meaning the general makeup of the graduating class during this time may differ in more meaningful ways that are related to income.

APS students who qualify for free/reduced lunch sat at 55.4 percent, in comparison to the state avera of 36.4 percent.

With more students participating in taking the ACT, more students who were from various socioeconomic backgrounds are able to take the test who may not have had the financial means to test multiple times or have time to prep, Haugen noted.

“Cost comes a lot into play for some of our students,” he said. “Students who can afford to take the test multiple times can get higher scores. Economics in the home can change a lot of things.”

This could also be related to a statistic that those who come from low-income homes would be less exposed to an expansive vocabulary that’s spoken or would appear frequently on standardized tests, Alberts said. The average median household income in Austin was $46,923, while the state’s average was $65,699.

With a large population of English Learning (EL) students, those who are expected to take a college entrance exam would have to perform at the same level as native speakers, setting them up for a disadvantage when taking the test. In APS 18.7 percent of students are EL, and 34.6 percent don’t have English as their primary language. The state average for EL Learners is at 8.4 percent and those who say that English is not their primary language is at 16.4 percent.

When legislation changed in 2016 so that all juniors were expected to take the ACT, that act in itself influenced the average composite score, which dropped by 1.6 statewide. Prior to the legislation change, 70 percent of students would be taking the test, as opposed to now Minnesota having 95 percent student participation.

Regionally, Minnesota and the majority of the Midwest had the highest students participating in the ACT, and saw lower average composite scores. Eastern Coast and Western Coast states saw the lowest, but many of those students may be required to take the SAT instead of the ACT.

Instead of only allowing students from higher income households taking the test and providing equitable opportunities, school districts have opted to help make taking the test obtainable. Austin has already been using different ways to get more students access such as turning the school into a testing center so that transportation would not be a barrier. The Hormel Foundation supported AHS financially to allow all juniors to be able to take the ACT and pay for their exam at least once since 2013. That means removing a financial barrier that might have prevented students from low-income backgrounds to be able to take the standardized test.

By allowing more students from all backgrounds the opporunity to take the ACT, then the average composite score for that high school would drop as there would be more scores than just the top performing students who come from advantaged households and have more opportunities for test prep or retaking tests.

It also gives students equitable chances of seeing a future that they may not have even considered. Whether that’s reflected in standardized test scores and the quality of a school district’s education, that’s something that officials want the public to understand and that numbers aren’t necessarily the bottom line.

“Our intention is to give students a chance to have a score, regardless of what it is, so that it opens a door to something that they may never have even thought of,” Alberts said. “One of our key missions as a district is equity, and making sure that these conversations are taking place. It comes with balance. Yes, it means a lower average composite score, but it means equitable opportunities for our students.”

Austin High School Average ACT Composite Score

2015: 19.6

2016: 19.0

2017: 19.7

2018: 18.9

2019: 19.3

Breakdown of AHS Average ACT Composite Score by Class Ranking Percentage

Top 10 percent

2015: 29.8

2016: 29.8

2017: 29.8

2018: 29.0

2019: 29.3

Top 20 percent

2015: 28.2

2016: 27.6

2017: 27.8

2018: 27.0

2019: 27.3

Top 30 percent

2015: 27.0

2016: 26.2

2017: 26.3

2018: 25.6

2019: 25.9

Top 40 percent

2015: 25.8

2016: 24.7

2017: 25.1

2018: 24.4

2019: 24.7

Top 50 percent

2015: 24.8

2016: 23.5

2017: 24.1

2018: 23.4

2019: 23.6