By Bethany Adams
School Report: High School
While the 2016 ACT composite scores are currently unavailable for Jefferson County schools, reports showing percentages of students who met the benchmark for college-readiness are showing some losses.
The losses are also present in tenth-grade ACT Aspire scores, and both sets of numbers reflect the downward trend that, according to school officials, begins in middle school, when work begins growing in difficulty and priorities shift.
State-wide, the average ACT composite score came in at 18.7 (19.1 once private schools are factored in). The average score in the 2014-15 year, which was the first year that all students in the eleventh-grade class were required to take the exam, was 18.8. Only 15 percent of eleventh-grade students met the benchmark for college readiness in all five sections of the ACT in 2016.
In tenth grade, state math averages for the ACT Aspire dropped from 20 percent in both 2014 and 2015 to 18 percent this year. Reading scores, which rose from 21 percent to 24 in last year, lost one percentage point in 2016.
In response to the drop in scores, school administrations and faculty are working to implement programs and response initiatives designed to bring numbers back up and better prepare students.
Hewitt-Trussville High School
At Hewitt-Trussville High School, the average ACT composite score actually rose a full point from the previous year to 22.5. Also above state average was the percentage of students who scored college-ready in all sections of the ACT, which came in at 31 percent. In tenth grade, math scores dropped five percentage points to 38 percent but also remained well-above the state average of 22 percent.
According to Principal Tim Salem, there is always room for improvement. “We need to do better, and we will do better,” he said. One of the steps that the school will take moving forward is allowing sophomores more time with the Aspire Sandbox, a student toolkit designed to better prepare them for the test. He said that they also plan to stretch Aspire testing over two days, rather than having students take the test in a single day.
“For the ACT, we’re very pleased with our growth,” he added. “We’re not where we want to be, but I think our focus with ACT is going to be the continued teacher-student inclusion of ACT Bellringers, a curriculum that is deeper and takes in the different content pieces the ACT is covering.”
Superintendent Patti Neill credits high scores to a number of factors. School staff and administrators have implemented programs to prepare students, including evening ACT prep sessions, remediation opportunities and motivational posters designed to create a culture of enthusiasm.
“When you match the focus on content knowledge, scheduling during the day and test-taking strategies at the high school level with the dedicated professionals in place to implement these strategies, you have full potential to reach the ACT goals,” Dr. Neill said. “This is for the betterment of each student, the school and the community at large.”
For Dr. Neill, it’s about more than meeting benchmarks. “If I go along with what the state wants me to do, they want all of our students to be college or career ready,” Neill said. “But in addition to that, we educate the whole child. We want them to be good citizens, we want them to be productive citizens, and we want them to have a clear pathway of what they want to do immediately after high school, so that they don’t spend time wondering what they will do next.”
Pinson Valley High School
Pinson Valley High School’s tenth-grade Aspire math scores dropped three percentage points from last year, landing at four percent. In the eleventh-grade class, the percentage of students who met all ACT benchmarks dipped slightly from six to five percent. Michael Turner, who is in his second year as principal at PVHS, recognized that students’ scores can reflect new challenges that they face as they move through their school careers.
“Well, there is an achievement gap that accompanies that,” Turner said. In response, he is working with the school to implement initiatives like a math intervention program, which will include instruction by a teacher with more than twenty years’ experience teaching math. “And what we are doing now, is we are going to begin to allow her to work in small groups with individuals who have these deficits, in addition to helping teachers improve strategies,” Turner said.
In order to work on a wider range of subjects, the school also partners with CAMP—College Admissions Made Possible—which uses the Kaplan ACT platform. “We will continue to provide our students with an ACT mock exam—three of them, as a matter of fact—during the balance of the school year in an effort to expose them to the content and, more importantly, the strategy,” Turner said.
According to Turner, the program involves a CAMP representative working with teachers to create strategies and set benchmarks and goals for students. “And then from there, we begin to track… through the data how they are doing on these ACT mark assessments, so we can begin to really work in the areas of deficit,” Turner said.
Clay-Chalkville High School
At Clay-Chalkville High School, tenth-grade Aspire math scores have gone from seventeen to eleven to six percent over the past three years. While ACT scores showed some improvement across all subjects, the percentage of students who met all benchmarks remained at seven percent from last year.
Principal Michael Lee recognized that high school students face a number of challenges, including a lack of motivation and poverty levels. “[In 2016], 43.69 percent of our students were living in poverty,” Lee said. “We don’t use poverty as an excuse for our students, we simply recognize that our students may not come to us with everything that their peers across the area have.”
He emphasized that the faculty and staff are dedicated to filling those gaps and giving students access to learning opportunities and technology that might not otherwise be available to them. “Everything that our faculty and staff do is based on what students – each individual student – needs in order to be successful,” he said. “I can’t say enough about how proud I am to work with this dedicated staff every day to meet the needs of our students.”
Lee explained that, through the Southern Regional Education Board instructional design, the faculty and staff “receive professional learning opportunities that aid in supporting student success for the educational pathways they select.”
The school also utilizes a Response to Instruction framework and student four-year plans. “Our focus is on providing intervention prior to the need for remediation,” he said. “Therefore, our teachers are constantly adapting instructional time to provide what the students need in the form of acceleration for students that are ready to move on, intervention for students that might need a little more attention prior to moving on, and, if needed, remedial support for students that are lacking pre-requisite skills.”
Lee pointed out that, while he hopes to see more students achieving the benchmarks on the ACT, there is a bigger picture for Clay-Chalkville’s students. “We are focused on every student developing, implementing, and achieving the 4-year educational pathway/goals that begin the day they walk in our front door,” he said.
Like Superintendent Neill, Lee wants the school to equip students with more than good test scores. “My greatest hope is that every young man and woman that walks through our front doors will leave here prepared for whatever it is they desire to achieve as citizens of this nation, and that they will always know that the faculty and staff at Clay-Chalkville High School will always be here to support them,” he said.
While test scores vary from school-to-school, students across the state are facing similar challenges that can detract from grades and affect their futures. Similarities can also be seen in the way that local school faculty, staff and administrators are addressing these challenges.
Regardless of whether students are scoring above or below state average, the hope of local school officials is that they will have the opportunities, resources and support that they need to prepare themselves for life after graduation.