OXFORD – Folks fixate on the scores, but a better question might be why all Mississippi high school students now take the college entrance exam known as the ACT

By Charlie Mitchell

OXFORD – Folks fixate on the scores, but a better question might be why all Mississippi high school students now take the college entrance exam known as the ACT. It has not always been a requirement.
Last week, state-by-state ACT averages were released and the results shocked no one. The national average was 21.1 (on a scale that reaches 36) and Mississippi was at the bottom with an 18.7 average.
The reality associated with the numbers is that about 1 in 10 high school students in this state demonstrated readiness for college-level studies in reading, math, science and such. The national average, 1 in 4, is not much to brag about, either.
The reaction to Mississippi’s numbers was the usual hand-wringing and “we’ve got to do better” speeches. Nothing wrong with that, but there is a more complete picture.
First, when Mississippi followed Texas and other states into the high-stakes testing arena, the dynamic of teaching changed at the K-12 level.
The decision to deploy standardized statewide pass-fail exams was well-intended. The thinking was there were certain things every child advancing to the next grade or receiving a high school diploma should know. And uniformity is desirable.
But there’s a breakdown.
Once the facts or skills are defined at the state level, it becomes a teacher’s mission to make sure students can regurgitate facts or demostrate skills on machine-scored exams. The four-letter word for this type of learning is rote. It works like call-and-response in church.
Under this approach to teaching and testing, there is no development (or less development) and no measurement (or less measurement) of reasoning or problem-solving skills.
The abilities of students to figure things out is not developed as thoroughly. Think about it this way. A good rote learner can be great at replacing a defective car part with speed and precision. But rote skills alone are not useful in determining what part needs replacing. That requires analytical abiity.
And guess what?
The ACT measures reasoning and problem-solving for the most part because that type of brain power is what colleges seek.
So we have decreased development of abilities essential in college and then we fret when scores are low on a test designed to measure those abilities. Kind of ludicrous, isn’t it?
It’s like a farmer who has grown corn and green beans for many years reducing his bean planting one year and then, when looking at his after-harvest income report, complaining that he didn’t make as much money from beans.
Here’s the other aspect. Only 10 of the 50 states require the ACT of all students. Mississippi has only recently become one of them.
This can skew the picture markedly.
To compare the total average of all students in any state with the average in a state where only 10 percent of students, all seriously college-bound, take the same test is, well, silly.
The ACT is developed and sold by a private company based in Iowa City, Iowa. Another company owns and administers the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and there are myriad other tests and testing companies. Colleges and universities, public and private, accept different tests and give scores different weight in admissions decisions.
One thing all are looking for is potential of an applicant to succeed and, quite naturally, the tests are designed to be predictive of good results. The idea is to measure both how much a student knows and the student’s capacity for learning.
Yet the test scores are used for purposes other than the design purposes. State and federal aid programs or summer jobs programs will, for example, use a low ACT score to determine eligibility for aid. And there are other federal programs that award money to low-performing schools, creating the perverse situation that if students improve, funding is cut.
These or similar purposes may have played a role in having all Mississippi high schoolers take the ACT, whether they have any intention of seeking college admission anywhere.
College entrance exams are designed to serve one purpose – to ascertain college readiness. The tests themselves are tested and retested to determine their validity for that purpose.
We are not very smart if we use the results for different purposes, to infer too much from looking at the scores and not thinking in context.
This is not to make excuses for Mississippi’s low average score. The “we can do better” crowd is right. But the numbers alone don’t tell the whole story.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email cmitchell43@yahoo.com.