Since its inception in 1959, the ACT has been the definitive word on whether high schoolers are ready for college.
But today it's become a challenge to gauge the results of the tests, taken mostly by high school juniors. The variables include: tougher tests and grading standards and wide disparities in scores among the increasingly diverse students taking the tests.
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Changing student demographics, including increases in low income, minority and special needs populations, is one of the main factors affecting scores. The inclusion of students who required accommodations, such as special education students being given extended time to take the ACT test, skewed this fall's results. Those students were not factored into ACT scores shown on the 2012 state report card.
The state also changed ACT benchmarks -- scores expected for success at the college level -- for science and reading. In reading, the mark went up from 21 to 22, science moved down from 24 to 23, while benchmarks for math and English stayed the same, 22 and 18, respectively.
To be sure, educators are interested in improving ACT scores, but by and large, they've been flat or decreasing in some districts. So now, when measuring college-readiness, suburban educators are looking beyond ACT scores to determine whether their high school students have the critical thinking and analytical skills needed to succeed.
Predicting college readiness has never been a precise art, said Steve Cordogan, director of research and evaluation for Northwest Suburban High School District 214.
"ACT is supposedly the watchdog of student performance; they say 25 percent of students are ready for college in Illinois," Cordogan said. "It has no resemblance to actual student performance."
In fact, he said, ACT's own 2005 study shows most low-performing students -- 65 percent of students who met none of the test's college benchmarks -- made it to their second year of college with a C-plus average.
"ACT tests are only so predictive," he said. "There is a very low relationship between performance on those tests and success in college classes, according to their own study as well as according to recent research. As far as college readiness, it is really student performance in the classroom that predicts future student performance in college."
Here is a closer look at four suburban school districts with markedly different demographics and test scores, and what they are doing to prepare their students for college.
The state's second-largest school district showed little overall improvement in ACT scores in state school report card figures released this fall.
Yet, the district has seen steady improvement in the number of students meeting college readiness standards, said Laura Hill, U-46 director of assessment and accountability.
"Since 2008, 4 percent more of our students are college-ready," she said. "Sometimes when you look at each individual high school, the percentages can be higher."
Breaking down the numbers by ethnicity illustrates the ongoing challenge U-46 faces. While overall percentages of students meeting college readiness standards have increased since 2008 -- Asian (64 percent), black (17 percent), Hispanic (23 percent) and white (59 percent) -- there is a huge achievement gap between Asian/white students and black/Hispanic students. The district's goal is to have, by 2015, 75 percent of its students ready for college, with an ACT composite score of 21 or more in math, reading, English and science. Per the state's benchmark, anything higher than 21.2 is considered good.
Hill said it's tough to compare U-46 high schools because they may have different programs that could affect scores, such as Bartlett High School's Science, Engineering and Technology Academy that replaces traditional classrooms with laboratories providing accelerated math and science curriculum and Advanced Placement course opportunities.
U-46's AVID, or Advancement Via Individual Determination, program tries to bridge the ethnic achievement gap. The program is implemented districtwide at every middle and high school. The significant jump in Hispanic students who are college ready -- up from 13 percent in 2008 to 23 percent in 2013 -- can be attributed to the program's success, Hill said.
"We've also had a huge increase in the numbers of Hispanic students who take Advance Placement courses" for which the district has been nationally recognized, she added.
For several years, U-46 has been measuring college readiness by the number of students who earn the National Career Readiness Certificate, a series of tests given to all juniors on the second day of the Prairie State Achievement Exam. It measures applied math, reading, cognitive skills and work-related behaviors. The 2012-13 academic year is the first year Illinois required the test for all juniors.
"We do know, based on the number of students that have earned that certificate, the number (of college-ready students) is increasing," Hill said.
How well students do on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, taken by third- through eighth-graders, is a good early indicator of how those students will fare on the ACT years later, said Mike Moan, chief academic officer for Huntley Unit District 158.
The 2013 state report card included higher performance expectations in mathematics and reading proficiency on the ISAT to better align it with the Prairie State Achievement Exam, which is given to 11th-graders and includes the ACT exam. The state changed the scale to help Illinois students meet rigorous standards for college and career readiness.
District 158, a K-12 district with 9,500 students, was among the top five school districts in the Fox Valley area in the number of students "meeting/exceeding" state standards on ISAT third- and eighth-grade reading and math tests. The district had the highest ISAT scores in McHenry County, Moan said.
"Kids are coming into high school better prepared," he said. "It's a big part of helping the ACT score."
Huntley High School's ACT score -- 22.4 -- was the third highest in McHenry County in 2013. Nearly 67 percent of students tested were college ready, Moan said.
"That was not true a few years ago," Moan said. "Our average ACT score was about 20 seven years ago. In the last four years, it has been 22.5 and we've sustained it. Our goal is to get up to 23.5. Our (ACT) reading score had been a little bit lower, so we're really focused on that in the high school."
Moan credits a rigorous curriculum, blended learning in which juniors and seniors take online courses and the district's emphasis on Advance Placement courses for improved ACT scores.
Some educators are excited the state decided to add ACT scores of special education students to the mix this year.
"We feel they are more accurate numbers because they represent all the students," said Tim Wierenga, assistant superintendent for assessment and analytics for Naperville Unit District 203.
The special needs students were given extra time to complete the tests. District 203, which ranks among the top 10 suburban school districts in ACT scores, saw composite scores dip slightly with the "extended time" students included -- Naperville Central's average score was 25, down from 25.5 in 2012, while Naperville North scored 24.7, down from 25.1.
Extended time students constituted 9 percent of the 1,539 students who took the ACT test in the Naperville district. Without those special needs students, both schools saw scores increase slightly from the previous year.
"In order to improve, you have to be focused on the individual rather than the collective," Wierenga said. "The school report card is focused on big-picture data. We've actually created a data warehouse and data analytic tool that allows the teachers to look at individual students and scores over time."
At Round Lake Senior High School, which has one of the lowest composite ACT scores of suburban schools at 18.1, officials are trying new strategies to improve test scores. One approach is encouraging students to think about college while in middle school.
"We feel like we need to engage in more comprehensive and consistent discussions about college readiness, ACT relevance," Principal Donn Mendoza said. "Kids need to take the assessment seriously."
Round Lake Unit District 116 this year has developed a counseling plan for sixth- through 12th-graders emphasizing career and college exploration and planning. Counselors will help create individual college and career development plans for students.
Another area of emphasis is coaching students on how to take the ACT exam through preparatory tests such as the EXPLORE and PLAN exams, administered in the eighth/ninth and 10th grades, respectively.
"Overall, we need to improve ... we're committed to getting better," Mendoza said. "We are going to start targeting accelerating literacy development of the kids in high school, which is key to being successful in any venue in life. That is going to be a major area of focus for us ... implementing reading and writing in other content areas."