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updated: 9/4/2011 3:50 AM

Most Northwest suburban schools improve on ACT

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By Zuzanna Skwiot

While schools in Northwest Suburban High School District 214 set an overall district record for ACT scores in the class of 2011, administrators at Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 saw composite scores drop in three of their five schools.

District 214, which includes Buffalo Grove, Elk Grove, Wheeling, Rolling Meadows, Hersey in Arlington Heights and Prospect in Mount Prospect, reached a final composite score of 23.4, a full 2.5 points higher than the state's average of 20.9.

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Elk Grove High School was the only one in the district that saw a drop, decreasing 0.5 points from last year.

"There will be fluctuations between school years that we don't have an explanation for and Elk Grove is an example of that," said Dr. Steve Cordogan, director of research and evaluation at District 214.

Cordogan expects next year's classes' scores to improve, according to predictions made from practice tests.

To help prepare students for the college placement exam, Cordogan said the district works within the curriculum and targets at-risk students.

"We work on identifying at-risk students and increasing their academic rigor and moving them into mainstream classes," he said.

"Test scores are the symptom of greater learning," Cordogan added. "The goal is greater learning."

In comparison with District 214's all-time high score, District 211 witnessed a drop in cumulative scores in Conant in Hoffman Estates, Schaumburg and Hoffman Estates High Schools. Hoffman Estates alone dropped from last year's score of 21.9, to 21.4 for the Class of 2011.

Samantha Dolen, assistant superintendent for student services at District 211, said that decreases are not unheard of and trends must be looked at over a long period of time.

"Though there may have been a few composite scores that have decreased over the past year, overall, our five-year trend is increasing," added Dolen. "We do think that the majority of our students are college ready."

Dolen also addressed the difference between composite scores within the district. Hoffman Estates earned an average of 21.4, almost 3.5 points below the score of 24.8 at Fremd in Palatine.

"While the curriculum is essentially the same throughout the schools, Hoffman Estates has more English as a Second Language (ESL) students," she said. "It's significantly more difficult for them to test well in a nonnative language."

Dolen also notes that the school does not utilize outside companies for test prep classes and students must seek private tutors if they desire additional help.

The area's highest cumulative average scores were reported from Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, where students tested on average 26.2 points.

"We incorporate ACT prep within the classroom," said Jim Corney, the public information coordinator at the school.

Stevenson, along with all other school districts, administers the Explore test to its students in either grade eight or nine, and later gives its sophomores the PLAN test. Both standardized tests are meant to gauge a student's future performance on the ACT, which they generally take in the spring of their junior year.

"All of our freshmen and sophomores take the tests and we use the data from those to identify students who might need additional instruction," said Corney.

St. Viator, a private Catholic school in Arlington Heights, was also one of the schools that passed the 25 point mark in testing, improving 0.5 points from last year's composite score. Students scored an average of 25.7 points, nearly five points higher than the state average.

One of the reasons for this increase, notes the school's principal, Eileen Manno, is the involvement of teachers in the ACT preparation process.

"We implemented an ACT prep course of our own with our own teachers," said Manno. "They know the curriculum and they know the test and the kids, so they are aware what gaps need to be filled."

Maine Township District 207 also reported that one of its schools, Maine South, averaged a score of 25.0 on the test, while Maine East and Maine West scored 21.1 and 21.2, respectively.

District officials denied to comment on the results until the scores were assessed and presented to the board on Tuesday, Sept. 6.

Elgin Area School District U-46 reported the lowest district average in the area, but it also saw improvements in all of its high schools.

There was, however, a large difference between schools. Bartlett had an average of 21.4 while Larkin in Elgin reported an 18.8 average score.

"We try not to compare the schools; we just look at the positive improvement," said Greg Walker, the assistant superintendent for secondary education at U-46.

Walker did note that the district is working to improve overall scores on the test by setting goals for the students.

Last year, U-46 established "Destination 2015," stating that school leaders hope to have 75 percent of students score a 21 or higher on their ACTs by the year 2015. With those scores, they hope to increase the district average to 24.

With U-46 scoring a cumulative average of 19.9, officials recognize that they have to a long ways to go to meet that goal.

"We're still working on meeting that goal," said Tony Sanders, the district's Chief of Staff.

While some other school districts have focused on test preparation and integration of ACT work into the curriculum, Barrington High School does not incorporate test preparation into the classroom.

"We don't work ACT prep into the curriculum, but we have private tutoring and teachers that work outside the school day to help kids with prep," said Principal Steve McWilliams.

The school just reported an average score of 25.0, a 0.6 point increase from last year's 24.4 score. McWilliams attributes part of this success to not only the students and teachers, but to the community.

"In families within the community, there is an understanding of the importance of education," he said. "You cannot underestimate the role of parents in motivating students to be successful."

"We can provide materials and sources, but motivation has to come from the student," McWilliams added.

All districts said that they hope to improve in the future, further preparing their students for good college performance based on ACT benchmarks.

The ACT is administered annually to high school juniors, who may take it several times to improve their scores, which may range from 1 to 36.

For more information on the test, go to act.org.

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