100% ACT Testing in Kentucky Part 3 – The Benchmark Scores

There are a lot of myths floating around Kentucky’s education circles. One is that the ACT college entrance test is only a nationally normed standardized achievement test. Such tests do not give any idea whether students have reached a desired level of proficiency, but only tell us if a student does better or worse than his peers. Well, the ACT used to be like that, but no more.

Today the ACT also has “Benchmark Scores.” These research-based scores indicate that students reaching those scores have at least a 75 percent chance of getting a “C” and a 50 percent chance of a “B” in the first related college level course. There are different Benchmark scores for each of the four subjects that ACT tests including English (a score of 18), math (22), reading (21) and science (24). Students who score below the benchmark in any area face serious hurdles in college and are at much greater risk of failure.

While the benchmark scores are fairly demanding, they are really critical. Thus, it is to their credit that the Kentucky Department of Education provides a very nice statewide ACT report that includes benchmark information.

The report is somewhat inaccurately titled the “ACT State Test Profile Report, Spring 2008 ACT-Tested Juniors, Kentucky,” but while the title doesn’t say so, the specific report linked in the department’s Web site only covers Kentucky public school students who took the ACT as part of the statewide 11th grade test program in 2008. There are no private school or home school students in this data.

So, what does the benchmark data show?

Things look best in English where overall 46 percent of our 11th grade students met the benchmark. However, while 51 percent of whites met the English benchmark, only 21 percent of our African-Americans did, which is amazingly even lower than the 26 percent figure for Kentucky’s small number of Hispanic students.

Things are not so rosy for math. Here only 20 percent of our students overall are on track for college. Scarcely 6 percent of African-Americans met the math benchmark, however, a figure once again below the 11 percent posted by Hispanics.

In reading, just 33 percent of all the students were ready for college level reading assignments, while only 14 percent of African-Americans were and 20 percent of Hispanics were.

Things look worst of all for science courses. Overall only 15 percent of the 11th graders are on track for college level science work, while an appalling 3 percent of African-Americans were likely to be ready. On this subject, Hispanics fare scarcely better with only 8 percent likely to handle college science.

Overall across all four subjects, only 10 percent, just one of ten students who took the 11th grade ACT administration is ready across all four subjects. For African-Americans the readiness is a dismal 2 percent, and for Hispanics it is only 5 percent.

It should be noted that these students all have one more year of high school, and they will certainly make some improvement in performance prior to actually going on to college. However, given the very low numbers above, it is clear that a very large proportion of our kids are not at present being adequately prepared for higher education. Given that about 60 percent of our students do go on to higher education, the seeds of failure for far too many are already clearly sown.

However, the good news is that Kentucky is finally starting to face up to the reality with a high quality testing program that does give us some pretty compelling data. It now remains to be seen if the state will have the gumption to say the course with the ACT testing program and also dig in to learn from it to make education better in the future.