There's no silver bullet. But a tougher curriculum, more help for struggling students and better preparation for testing may explain why Lisle Senior High School posted one of the biggest gains in the suburbs on ACT scores.
Lisle's average composite ACT score improved from 22.0 to 23.1 (out of a perfect score of 36) from 2010 to 2011 -- the largest improvement among 69 high schools in the Daily Herald's coverage area of North, Northwest and West suburbs, according to 2011 state report card data released today.
Principal Pete Sullivan said it wasn't one new program, one ACT prep class or one group of straight-A students that led to the jump.
Instead, it's multiple efforts -- promoting test preparation materials, adding challenging classes and assisting students with poor grades in core classes -- that led to the ACT score increase, Sullivan said.
"The best way to prepare students for a test like the ACT remains to engage them in a rigorous curriculum," he said.
Lisle toughened its curriculum by adding more Advanced Placement classes for college credit, including an AP English composition class and an AP environmental science course new last year, Lisle Unit District Superintendent Patricia Wernet said.
Science scores on the Prairie State Achievement Examination taken by juniors, which includes the ACT, have been steady the past two years, at an average of 164 for the entire school, which meets state standards. English scores increased from 160 in 2010 to 161 in 2011, while math scores stayed consistent at 163. Lisle's English and math scores on the PSAE met standards both years as well.
"It's an overall concerted effort to look at science, English, math," Wernet said. "It's looking at the data to drive our decisions and providing opportunities for students at the high school."
The high school created a new position this year allowing an employee to identify and assist students who are struggling and track test scores over time, Sullivan said.
Former math teacher Jen Pomatto's work analyzing scores and referring students with D's or F's for tutoring or study skills didn't start in time to cause the ACT score increase. But using test scores and grades to decide if students need more help should increase scores in the future.
"We have just started that process," Pomatto said. "But we are really starting to look at that and see how our students have done in the past."
Another important factor in ACT success is reminding juniors the exam isn't something to blow off, Sullivan said.
"Our high school has been conveying for our students the significance of the test both for themselves and for the school," Sullivan said. "We also make sure our students are aware of the availability of online resources for them to practice."
Rewarding students who score well may boost scores by adding extra motivation to succeed, Pomatto said.
Photos of students who exceeded standards in all subjects on the PSAE are posted in the commons. And students earned one raffle ticket for exceeding standards in each subject, with the prize -- principal Sulivan's parking spot for an entire year -- going to a lucky senior, Pomatto said.
Sullivan said he's proud of the 1.1 point composite ACT increase his current seniors scored compared to last year's group.
"As excited as we are with these very solid results from our wonderful students who participated in those tests ... we're going to continue to work to review our programs of study and to review the progress of our students very carefully," Sullivan said.