Each year at NS, the school increases the amount of preparation students receive for the ACT, the three-hour long college entrance exam. Recently the focus at NS shifted from improving students’ scores all around to increasing the number of students who meet the benchmark for College and Career Readiness.
This shift is due to the change in the school improvement plan and its new goal to improve the number of students who meet benchmark. The benchmarks are given for each of the four sections on the ACT test; English has the lowest benchmark at 18, with reading and mathematics at 22, and science at 23.
The benchmarks are set by ACT, and are determined by “the level of achievement required for students to have 50 percent chance of obtaining a B or higher or about a 75 percent chance of obtaining a C or higher in corresponding credit-bearing first-year college courses,” according to ACT’s website.
The 2016-17 graduating class at NS had 13 percent of its students meet all four benchmarks. 38 percent met the English standards, 26 percent met mathematics, 29 percent met reading, and 21 percent met science. With these benchmarks in mind, NS hopes to be able to better focus on and see individual students making progress toward being college and career ready and by doing so see an increase in students who meet the benchmark.
“When you focus on an overall number you sometimes lose track of individual students, and it’s also a harder number to control,” said NS counselor Ben Cox, “but by focusing our efforts on those kids who are trying to bump up to college and career ready, we think we’ll see a better result for individual students, and overall I think it will help.”
By focusing on more individual students and those who meet benchmark instead of trying to improve the average class wide score, NS is looking at those students who try and who want to achieve the benchmark, making it a fairer outlook.
“I think it’s a far fairer assessment to look at the benchmarks because it’s only looking at the kids who…are really interested in the ACT, who are reaching the benchmark,” said Nan Ault, principal at NS. “What I hope to do as a school is to increase that. For us to know whether we are actually improving as a school and that we’re really helping kids get ready for their future, that’s where we can look, where it’s a little more fair.”
Changing their focus and goals to the benchmarks does not mean NS has stopped trying to improve the average score. NS continues to prepare students in many ways, including through the required College Prep class, and, starting this year, paying for sophomores to take the ACT.
“What we want [the sophomores] to do is have an experience with the test…before they actually take that junior ACT test,” Ault said. “We want them to feel confident about doing it as many times as they need to; we want them to feel confident going into the test as a junior and that is the reason for the ACT prep.”
Research shows that students who take the ACT prior to their junior year do better than those who do not, which is why NS is opening the option to pay for sophomores’ testing. By having the option for sophomores to take the test before their junior year, and preparing juniors more extensively for the ACT, NS is still pushing towards a positive shift in ACT scores.
Raising the school average is important because NS sits significantly below the state averages in both composite and section scores. NS falls short of the state average composite score by 1.4 points, and the deficit in the section scores are as follows: 2.0 points below the state English average, 0.9 below mathematics, and 1.2 below for both reading and science.
Last year’s scores are fairly normal for NS; the school is typically one to one and a half points below the state average for mathematics, reading, and science, and two points below average for English.
Though NS students are more behind in their English average than another section, according to ACT standards, more NS students are college-ready in their English ability than any of the other sections. Ten percent more students met the English benchmark than any other category. This stark contrast is due to how the benchmarks are set. The English benchmark is set at 18, which is four or five fewer points than the benchmark set for the other sections.
While the school’s average sits about the same from year to year, there is a wide margin between scores for individual students, and between the number of high scoring students from class to class. The class of 2017 has nine students with a 30+ score, while the class of 2016 had only one student who achieved a thirty. This is a strange contrast when both classes receive the same schooling.
“We want to know why some classes do so much better than others because they essentially go through the same system, but they are getting very different scores,” Cox said. “It may be partly due more to the competitive nature of the class and their desire to push each other to learn and succeed. This is more about the student who’s involved than about the process and the system that’s in place. We have a system in place to help students but there’s still a lot who don’t take advantage of it, but when they push each other that’s when it tends to really make a difference.”
This reflects on why the school is focusing on the benchmarks and those students who want to do well on the ACT and who see the importance of it because not all students push themselves to do their best on it, and other times it may take students taking the test once to see how valuable it can be.
“The ACT is certainly something that we hope [the students] do well at, but I think you kind of have to roll through every class and every class will do differently,” Ault said. “Maybe because of the junior ACT scores and composites that some of the juniors take it again and do very well. I hope that they’re encouraged to; it gives them a chance to get started, they still have more opportunities to take it and hopefully they do…because sometimes once is not enough.”
With the change to focus on the benchmarks, NS hopes to see those students who want to achieve college and career readiness be able to reach their goal.
“If you really want to get in there and jump in and play the game with us we want to see it,” Ault said. “We want to celebrate with you and we think it’s great. Everybody has the right to choose how they want to approach this…We just want everybody to have a really great chance of getting where they want to go.”