Sunday, Skip Kifer illustrated the point in the Herald-Leader.
Narrow view of student potential
By Skip Kifer
We old guys remember what the ACT did in its heyday. Along with a student's high school record, ACT scores helped admissions offices decide who had the best chance of succeeding in their institutions. Colleges used ACT scores, along with an array of other information, to place students in courses once they arrived on campus.
Last month, a committee representing the nation's admissions officers released a report about overemphasizing test scores and argued for prudent use of the ACT and the Scholastic Achievement Test in selecting students. The committee suggested that some colleges and universities can enroll students without requiring the tests. This is a recurring theme, not a new one.
What is new is that ACT officials, without having changed the nature of the test, say their scores now tell whether a student "meets expectations" or is "ready" to attend college.
Kentucky's high school juniors are required to take the ACT. Their results, released a couple of weeks ago, were interpreted to mean that too many students failed to "meet expectations" or too few were "ready."
What, we old guys wonder, could these assertions mean?
An ACT score is just that: a score on a test. It tells something about me as a student but means little without a context.
My 18 on the ACT means something very different if I am in the top 10 percent of my high school graduating class rather than just in the top half. My 18 means something different if I have taken solid courses rather than choosing an easy way to a diploma.
My 18 means something different if I were to take the test again. My 18 on the ACT means something different depending on the college or university I attend. Among Kentucky's public universities, for example, my 18 would be a relatively low score in one but a relatively high score in another.
My 18 is like Shaquille O'Neal's free-throw percentage. Being able to shoot barely 50 percent from the free-throw line says something about O'Neal. But, does it mean not "meeting expectations" or not being "ready" for the NBA? Hardly. NBA scouts are clever people who would not let one piece of information become a judgment.
ACT says that a person with an English score of 18 has a 50/50 chance of getting a B or higher in a college English course. We old guys say that is throwing the statistical dice.
My left foot is in boiling water and my right foot is in ice water but "on the average" I feel fine.
Of all students with a score of 18, one-half will get a B or better and one-half a C or worse. In which half is my 18? Is it in the ice or boiling water? ACT cannot answer that question. But if I were in the top 10 percent of my class, it is more likely that I will get the B or better.
We old guys also wonder why so much was made of ACT results and so little reported about Kentucky's Advanced Placement results. As opposed to the ACT, AP scores are a direct measure of whether a student can do college work.
Students take AP courses in a variety of subjects. An AP course is so well defined that what Kentucky students experience is comparable to what is experienced by students throughout the country. Each AP course is taught by a capable teacher and is described in detail with course goals, materials and examinations available for scrutiny.
The examination measures what is learned in the course. High-school students who score 3, 4 or 5 on an AP examination can get placement or credit or both in the college or university they attend.
Recent results show increased numbers of Kentucky's students taking AP courses and scoring higher on them. That is, more Kentucky students are doing acceptable college work in high school. It would make sense, therefore, for an educational community wanting more students to attend college to work to expand AP opportunities.
While it is important to provide opportunities to prepare each student to take AP courses, it is unlikely that all students will take them. Even so, AP courses point in a positive direction for schools. They are a model for structuring courses and tying together testing and instruction.
An algebra course, for example, in Fayette County should be the algebra course in Christian County. More important, two algebra courses in one Fayette County school should be the same algebra course.
AP results show, not surprisingly, that students tend to learn what they are taught. It is important, therefore, to define and teach what it is important to learn. Then one can assess and give credit.
Someone might ask the old guys what this has to do with O'Neal. The answer is clear. If you want to know what kind of basketball player he is, you let him play basketball. You don't look only at his free-throw shooting percentage and decide that he does not meet expectations.