ACT scores dropped in all but one local school district from 2015 to 2020, according to a recent compilation of data by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, mirroring declines in the state and nation.
Hartselle City Schools was the only local district to show improvement in all benchmarks over the five years. Morgan County Schools saw improvement in one benchmark, math, but all other systems in Morgan, Limestone and Lawrence counties saw declines in all benchmarks: composite, English, math, reading and science.
The data compiled by PARCA predates the pandemic. For students that took the ACT multiple times, the PARCA data only recorded the high score in each subject. The ACT is a standardized test scored from 0-36 in the four subjects, with a separate composite score that is an average of the scores in those subjects. It is designed to measure college readiness.
The drop in scores for districts other than Hartselle aligns with school districts statewide, with average ACT scores for Alabama students hitting their lowest point in five years. Only 16.3% of students received scores at or above the test's college-ready benchmark in 2020 for all subjects, according to the PARCA report published April 29. In English, 47.6% were college-ready, followed by 33% in reading, 25.1% in science and 21.4% in math.
A total of 48,846 Alabama high school students took the ACT in 2020, according to PARCA, or 93% of the class of 2020, a percentage which has remained stable since 2018.
Scores also dropped nationally, although those scores are not comparable to scores in Alabama where all students take the test. “Only half the nation’s high school graduates take the ACT, and the students who do are disproportionately likely to be headed to college,” according to the PARCA report.
Results for the test students took in March, which will reflect changes in instruction caused by the pandemic, have not been released.
The PARCA analysis, drawn from Alabama State Department of Education data, shows a dramatic gap locally and statewide between those students who are economically disadvantaged and those who are not. Statewide, 5.7% of economically disadvantaged students showed college readiness in all benchmarks, compared to 24.1% of those students who were not economically disadvantaged.
From 2015 to 2020, Decatur City Schools saw drops of 1 point or more in every benchmark but science, where the drop was 0.9 of a point.
DCS also saw one-year drops from 2019 to 2020 in all subjects but math, which was unchanged. Overall composite scores for the city’s two high schools were 18.1 in 2020 down from 18.6 the year before.
Under ACT metrics, 40% of the DCS class of 2020 was college-ready in English, 30.3% in reading, 24.6% in science and 19.1% in math.
Michael Douglas, superintendent of Decatur City Schools, said his district anticipated this decline and is working to increase test-taking and preparedness opportunities for students based on data such as Alabama Scantron Performance Tests and ACT Aspire testing at the middle school level.
This year, the district offered a citywide optional ACT a month ahead of the state assessment, which Douglas said is important for students of minority and low-income backgrounds.
PARCA supplied additional data to The Decatur Daily showing the number of Decatur City Schools students receiving free lunches has increased, which suggests an increase in the number of low-income students in the district.
“If you’re affluent you take the ACT multiple times, but if you live in poverty, then you may only take it one time,” Douglas said. “What we’re trying to do is use the free waivers the ACT provides and provide a place to take it at Austin (High) and get (students) exposed to the test before the actual state assessment comes in March.”
Students who took the optional ACT scored a point higher than those who only took the state assessment, according to Douglas.
In contrast, Hartselle City Schools’ scores increased in every benchmark over the five years, although the increases were by less than 1 point in each.
Between 2019 and 2020, Hartselle’s average composite scores increased 0.3 from 22.2 in 2019 to 22.5 in 2020, although its science and math scores dipped slightly that year.
The number of students receiving free lunches in Hartselle has decreased since 2018, PARCA data showed.
Hartselle continued to surpass other local districts and the state average in college readiness, with 77.6% of Hartselle’s class of 2020 hitting the benchmark in English, 59.8% in reading, 53.7% in science and 49.2% in math.
Dee Dee Jones, superintendent for Hartselle City Schools, said students in the district are driven by positive motivation from faculty and staff to perform well on the ACT.
“(Names of students) who meet their goals are posted in their hallways,” she said. “It’s visible every day, they walk by this wall, so it’s something that stays on the forefront of their minds.”
Jones said students also take the PreACT in 10th grade and that the school system uses a vertical planning model that sees instructors teach upward, with material learned in one lesson used to further students’ knowledge in the next lesson.
Brad Cooper, principal of Hartselle High School, said he was proud of the district’s ACT metrics — sixth in Alabama in composite scores, third in English, seventh in math, fifth in reading and seventh in science.
“Our beginning of the day activities are all based around ACT questions, and … we offer ACT prep class (in math and English),” he said.
Some students opt to take the ACT early, in their freshman and sophomore years, following an ACT prep class offered at the middle school level, Cooper said. There were 51 students in the class of 2020 who scored a 30 or above composite, according to Cooper.
Over the five-year period, Morgan County Schools saw declines of less than 1 point in all benchmarks but math, where scores increased by 0.3 point.
Between 2019 and 2020, Morgan saw an increase in composite scores — 18.6 last year compared to 18.1 in 2019. Patrick Patterson, director of secondary education, said Morgan County Schools suspects this may be the beginning of an upward trend because the district has looked for subject skill gaps in students' PreACT scores and responded with instructional support where needed.
College readiness was demonstrated in English by 48.9% of Morgan County Schools’ class of 2020, with 32.3% showing readiness in reading, 23.1% in science and 19.8% in math.
Over five years, Lawrence County saw a drop of less than 1 point in all ACT benchmarks. It was also down in all benchmarks from 2019-2020.
Lawrence administrators are looking to implement a districtwide data plan for ACT improvement. Jon Bret Smith, superintendent of the district, said this should relieve individual schools from having to develop their own test improvement plans.
Smith also said his district has hired new tutors focused on seeing students succeed with standardized testing and preparing for life after high school.
“Some of the things they’re going to be responsible for is the data and is to make sure that those students are college- and career-ready and that they meet those benchmarks.”
Lawrence County had a 0.3 decrease in composite scores — 17.6 in 2020 versus 17.9 in 2019.
Under ACT metrics, 41.8% of the Lawrence County Schools class of 2020 was college-ready in English, 30.2% in reading, 16.5% in science and 14% in math.
Athens City Schools dropped in all ACT benchmarks between 2015 and 2020, with scores dropping 1 point or more in English, math and science. It also saw declines in all benchmarks between 2019 and 2020.
Under ACT metrics, 56.5% of Athens City’s class of 2020 was college-ready in English, 44.5% in reading, 33.4% in science and 26.8% in math.
Over the five-year period, Limestone County Schools also saw declines of less than 1 point in every benchmark. From 2019 to 2020, it saw declines in all benchmarks except math, which was unchanged.
Using ACT metrics, 46.8% of Limestone County Schools’ class of 2020 was college-ready in English, 33.1% in reading, 22% in science and 16.8% in math.