Teaching

ACT Test-Prep Backfiring in Chicago, Study Warns

By Christina A. Samuels — June 04, 2008 3 min read
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Hours of drilling on ACT questions in Chicago high schools may be hurting, not helping, students’ scores on the college-admission exam, according to a study released last week by a university-based research organization.

The Consortium on Chicago School Research, based at the University of Chicago, found that many teachers in the 409,000-student district would spend about one month of instructional time on ACT practice in the core classes offered during junior year.

But the ACT scores were slightly lower in schools where 11th grade teachers reported spending 40 percent of their instructional time in a school year on test preparation, compared with schools where teachers devoted less than 20 percent of their class time to ACT preparation.

The study examined surveys and test scores of high school juniors in 2005. Teachers were also surveyed as part of the study.

Elaine Allensworth, a co-director at the consortium and the lead author of “From High School to the Future: ACT Preparation—Too Much, Too Late,” identified two problems: First, devoting so much time to preparation diverts attention from the analytical and problem-solving skills that students need to do well on the test. Also, the test preparation that most teachers are doing in the classroom is poor.

“The ACT is not designed for instruction,” Ms. Allensworth said in an interview.

The ACT, administered by Iowa City, Iowa-based ACT Inc., is a three-hour test of language arts, mathematics, and science tied closely to the high school curriculum. Five states—Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, and Wyoming—give the test to all high school juniors. About 1.3 million students in the class of 2007 took the test, according to ACT Inc.

In Illinois, the ACT is part of the state’s accountability system. Chicago students’ average composite scores have increased from 16.8 in 2003 to 17.6 in 2007. A perfect score on the test is a 36.

Ed Colby, a spokesman for the test-preparation organization, said the test is intended to measure skills that students should have learned in high school, and that college professors expect their students to have mastered. The best preparation for students is to take a broad and rigorous high school curriculum, he said.

“ACT prep is learning the material you’re being taught in your classes,” Mr. Colby said.

Focus on Random Items

However, a large percentage of high school students and teachers surveyed don’t see it that way, according to the consortium’s research, Ms. Allensworth said. About 83 percent of Chicago high school juniors surveyed believed that ACT scores are primarily determined by test-taking skills. Only a third of English and science teachers said they believed the ACT is a good measure of learning in schools.

So the test preparation tends to focus on random items taken from practice tests, Ms. Allensworth said. “You’re not building on knowledge,” she said.

Also, the Chicago district uses the PLAN, a test developed by ACT Inc. that is geared toward sophomore-level academics. Because juniors take that test in the fall before taking the real ACT in the spring, they can end up with an inaccurate picture of the actual difficulty level of the ACT, she said. However, there is a correlation between higher scores and students who have taken a practice ACT test under real-world conditions.

That finding suggests that schools should “make sure kids are taking a real practice test under real conditions, as opposed to teachers bringing in a lot of geometry questions,” Ms. Allensworth said.

The report also says schools should consider helping students better understand the connection between the work they do in their courses and their scores on the ACT. Also, districts should determine whether their courses are structured to align with the academic skills that the ACT measures.

“In the end, raising ACT scores requires the same strategies as improving graduation rates and better preparing students for college—a focus on the quality of students’ work in their classes, clearly tied to preparation for the future,” the study says.

Arne Duncan, the chief executive officer the district, said an initiative to transform high schools that began in 2006 is seeking to address the very issues raised by the report. Among the changes going on in high schools is moving exam-prep activities to nonschool hours.

But the most important change, he said, is the district’s work to improve the academic rigor of the high school curriculum. The study “reinforces the importance of the work we’re doing,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the June 04, 2008 edition of Education Week as ACT Test-Prep Backfiring in Chicago, Study Warns

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