State ACT scores still low, but local numbers rise

Published 11:25 am Thursday, August 23, 2012

JACKSON — While Mississippi’s ACT scores remained the worst in the nation last year, scores were up slightly for students taking the test in the Vicksburg Warren School District, Superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Swinford said this morning.

Swinford said the district’s test scores increased slightly in all areas except math, which dropped a tenth of a point.

“Our scores in English and science went up, and our composite scores went up,” she said.

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The testing organization, based in Iowa City, Iowa, said that only 11 percent of Mississippi students were ready for college in English, math, reading and science, compared with 25 percent of students nationwide. That’s up from 9 percent of Mississippi students who scored college-ready marks in all four subjects in 2008, compared with 22 percent nationwide.

In contrast to that modest improvement, the state average on the test is 18.7 this year, down from 18.9 in 2008. The national average has stayed level at 21.1. The best possible score is a 36.

“Unfortunately, this disturbing trend is seen across the country and is not particularly unique to Mississippi,” James Mason, the state Department of Education’s director of student assessment, told The Clarion-Ledger

“This scoring plateau represents a very compelling case for the need to increase the rigor of our curriculum and our expectations around student performance. Our work in transitioning to the Common Core State Standards is an important step in this process.”

Mississippi, along with most other states, have adopted the standards, which are intended to make instruction more challenging and push students to use more critical thinking and problem solving skills.

The share of students who meet all the benchmarks are much more likely to enroll in a four-year college or university, ACT found. Those who meet no benchmarks are much more likely to enroll in a community college or no college at all.

Mississippi’s scores have remained flat even though the share of students taking four or more years of English and three or more years of math, social studies and natural science has increased from 55 percent in 2008 to 75 percent in 2012, according to ACT. The organization says that course structure should prepare students for college.

Even Mississippi students who exceed ACT’s recommendations by, say, taking four years of math ending in calculus or four years of science ending in physics, end up meeting ACT’s definition of college readiness at far-lower levels than all students nationwide.

The organization’s research suggests that academic achievement in the upper end of elementary school and middle school has more of an impact on college readiness than anything that happens in high school.

Test scores show Mississippi is furthest behind the rest of the nation in math and science. More than half the state’s seniors meet the benchmark in English, but only 14 percent do so in science. Nationally, 67 percent of students meet the English benchmark while 31 percent do so in science.

“We just began to put more influence on science and social studies statewide this year,” Swinford said. “We are also continuing to put more emphasis on English and reading.”

A disadvantage for Mississippi? It’s one of nine states that give the ACT test to all high school seniors. Students don’t meet the national average score in any of those nine states, which include Louisiana and Tennessee. Many of the highest-ranking states test small shares of their graduating class, in part because another college test, the SAT, is the dominant test in some places.

Swinford said more students are encouraged to take the ACT “because we’re trying to influence our kids to go at least to a community college. We have a very good community college system.”