What About The Number of Students Taking the ACT in Oklahoma?

Within the last several days (8/20/10), I have read a number of articles resulting from an Oklahoma State Department of Education press release about the increase in Oklahoma public school students taking the ACT. CapitolBeatOK just released one that I thought was excellent at highlighting exactly the issues the OSDE wanted highlighted. Some of the comments inside the article made me wonder, so I did a little research of my own. Here are some facts that were not highlighted in the OSDE press release, and which I found most interesting.  Since 1993, OSDE has been running a program in conjunction with ACT called Educational Planning and Assessment EPAS which allows OK public school students to take various versions of the ACT beginning in 8th grade. I spoke with Dr. Cindy Brown, who coordinates the EPAS program at the OK State Regents for Higher Education, yesterday and found she had some very interesting statistics not available in the press release: o The Regents consider an ACT score of below 19 to be unacceptable o in 1994, 39% of all students who took the ACT scored below a 19 o in 2010, 36% of all students taking the ACT scored below a 19

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m no mathematician, but I do have rudimentary knowledge of how statistics work. I understand that the number of students taking the ACT in 1994 was probably a much smaller pool than in 2010. However, no matter the size of the pool over the years, a rise of a mere 3% above the 19 cut off within a time frame of 16 years seems downright pitiful especially with a rising pool of test takers. Don’t forget, in 16 years, according to EPAS, there should have been nearly four cycles of seniors using the EPAS program since their entrance into 8th grade. That doesn’t seem problematic to anyone but me? Sandy Garret says, "Typically, an increase in test-takers results in a lower average score, but that isn't what is happening in Oklahoma." I am assuming that she is postulating that new test takers are probably not as prepared for the ACT as those who have taken it before (most students take the ACT at least twice). Therefore, newer test takers tend to score lower, swamping out higher test scores (usually a much lower percentage) and creating a lower actual percentage of higher scores. Okay, but should this be a valid argument if at least four cycles of students have been exposed to the ACT since 8 th grade?

Just for the record, Dr. Brown did tell me that there were 11 kids of the 28,343 that took the ACT in 2010 who made a perfect score of 36. Obviously, this is awesome. I wish one of these 11 were one of my kids! The only thing is, however, that I was not foresighted enough to ask whether these kids were home-schooled or came out of a public education setting. I have no idea if the ACT scores to which she was referring were generated within the public education system or the educational system as a whole (including privately and home schooled students). Obviously, I'm not worried about kids scoring a 30 and above (and according to Dr. Brown, this is only 5% of the total ACT test pool) I am more worried about those that are scoring 19's and below and the reasons they are scoring so poorly. According to a press release from the Oklahoma Regents for Higher Education, "Although the state is making great strides by preparing students for higher education, many Oklahoma students fail to meet ACT’s benchmark scores that measure the number of graduates likely to be prepared for college-level work. As few as 19 percent of students met all four of ACT’s benchmark scores in English, college algebra, social science and biology. This is 5 percentage points below the national average." This information was not included in the original OSDE press release or the CapitolBeatOK article, but is backed up by articles from both the Wall Street Journal and the Tulsa World. I believe the main point here is this: 28+K students (the largest in Oklahoma history) took the ACT because they had become familiar with the process of taking the test during their public school tenure - not, necessarily because they had "an undeniable interest in attending college", or because they were necessarily college bound. I am certain that teachers and administrators made clear their expectations for students to take the ACT in high school from their entry point in eighth grade, simply because of their access to the EPAS program. After all, why institute a program at taxpayer expense and then not expect students to use it to their advantage? The OSDE and Regents certainly use the statistics gleaned from the program to justify the program - as evidenced by the recent press releases. It makes no sense for administrators/teachers not to steer high school students from EPAS into taking the ACT. Obviously, I make an arguable point here, but I don't think it any less valid for consideration. Consequently, as I see it, the fact that so many kids are taking the ACT is equivalent to a straw man argument regarding public education excellence in Oklahoma. Is it a good thing so many kids are taking the ACT? Probably so; anything that helps to gear students toward an interest in, or exposure to, learning is not in and of itself bad. Herein lies my bone of contention: If we (the taxpaying public) have been

subsidizing this program for 16 years only to get a 3% rise in scores above the standard of failure set by the OK Regents for Higher Education, we can not possibly be educating our kids well enough in the core subjects, no matter how the OSDE spins the numbers, or points to perceived successes in other programming (see comments made by Supt. Garrett on the ACE program inside the CapitolBeatOK article). In fact, the Regents admit this and the Wall Street Journal bears out this conclusion as well. I think many of the local articles generated around these press releases serve a purpose that concerns me as a taxpayer and as a parent of three kids in public education. I think those administrating, and reporting on, our public education programs tend to highlight instances to create a straw man effect. If we are given some data that looks good on some level, we'll accept that eagerly (after all, taxpayers and parents want to believe their monies are being well-spent) but overlook the argument upon which the data is predicated - unclear data at best, and at worse, really awful data. For example, while The Daily Oklahoman reports that the ACT scores for Oklahoma test takers were static, it then goes on to report a drop in the national average as well. Consequently the straw man becomes "Oklahoma's ACT scores have not changed" when given the fact that the nation’s has dropped. This argument then gives us the rational to say, "Okay, Oklahoma stinks, but other states are also stinking, or stinking more". Now, suddenly, public education is seen in a different light and our lack of decline becomes a celebrated highlight. If Oklahoma is truly going to succeed in public education, rigor - real, tough expectations - must be met. Rigor can only be met when Oklahoma parents and taxpayers know what rigor is - and what it isn't. It's going to take real knowledge of the system and much deeper research into the issues of public education, than simply taking the word of a press release or newspaper article, to make that happen.

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