Wednesday, September 13, 2017
The front-page article in Arkansas' Newspaper Sept. 7 relayed the bad news along with the good. For it turns out to be a simple matter of supply and demand. "Arkansas students' scores on college entrance exam dip," announced the headline. But it was offset by the good news in the subhead: "11th-grader ranks taking ACT swell."
It's a balancing act, an academic version of riding a seesaw. Want more kids to take this college entrance exam? Then be prepared to have more kids do poorly enough on it to require remedial courses if and when they get to college. There's nothing more complicated than that about it.
The state's commissioner of education, Johnny Key, explains that these test scores "represent a new baseline for Arkansas, as this is the first time the statewide administration of the exam is reflected in the scores for the [2017 public school] graduating class." As the years march on, the baseline doubtless will continue to shift class by class. Here's hoping the questions will grow more and more challenging rather than less so, and that old menace, grade inflation, can be kept at bay. This is a fast-moving game, education vs. ignorance, and its outcome will determine in large part the future of this state.
Maria Markham directs this state's Department of Higher Education, and she doesn't sound a bit worried by current trends. As she puts it in her most upbeat bureaucratese: "High school students taking the ACT as juniors get a small glimpse of the academic expectations beyond high school and a chance to challenge themselves." Besides, she adds, kids who don't score as high as they'd hope to are scarcely barred from college. Institutions of higher learning can base their admission policies on a variety of measures, and ACT scores may be only one of them. There are a lot of colleges out there eager to raise their enrollments--and their tuition fees.
"We love that Arkansas is giving every student the opportunity to get a picture of his/her readiness for college and careers," says Sarah McKenzie, executive director of the Office for Education Policy at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. Her opinion is seconded by Gary Ritter, who founded that operation. "We shouldn't get worked up on the overall drop" of student scores on the ACT, he says. "The overall drop is based on far more students taking it."
That means, he says, that this mandatory 11th-grade test is encouraging kids to take the test who might never have signed up for it before. Even though, he adds, the ACT college entrance exam is the singular test in Arkansas that matters for a student's future. There, we feel better about the test results. Kind of.
This much should be clear: It's much better to encourage kids to take the test than to skip it out of fear that they or their school--or school district--will be embarrassed by the news stories when the results are in. This new policy, says Gary Ritter, eliminates the incentive to skip the ACT tests altogether out of fear the results might prove embarrassing. By making the tests mandatory for all students, the "schools don't have a choice so the best incentive now--if they are worried about the public accountability of these scores being shared district by district--the incentives point schools in the direction of doing whatever they can to help kids get good at taking the ACT by 11th grade. That means the accountability system is pushing us in the direction we would want to move if we were just trying to make educationally sound decisions for kids." And that's the important thing.
Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer and columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Editorial on 09/13/2017
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