Green, Swilley develop strategy addressing low ACT scores

Kevin Boozer Staff Writer

August 25, 2013

WINNSBORO — Fairfield County Superintendent of Schools J.R. Green and Principal Tracie Swilley of Fairfield Central High School have a new strategy to close that gap in Fairfield County and the rest of the state.

In the short term, the district will purchase SAT/ACT preparation software that provides tutorials as well as mock exams for students to take. There is a diagnostic feature to evaluate strengths and weaknesses as well.

Fairfield County ACT scores lagged behind state ACT scores in 2013, a year when South Carolina scores showed the state is closing its ACT achievement gap with the rest of the nation.

In Fairfield County the composite score was 15.9 compared to the 20.9 composite score by public school students in South Carolina overall. Students overall scored 14.2 in English and 16.5 in math in Fairfield County compared to 19.1 in English statewide and 20.1 in math.

Nationally the composite scores were 20.2 for English and 20.9 for math.

Getting students to use the software for enrichment can be a challenge so the district is offering an incentive. If a student wishes to apply for a waiver of the fee for the ACT, then he or she must spend 10 hours on the program in order to qualify. Green called this an excellent incentive for students to invest the time needed for test preparation.

Green also said his long term goal is for the high school to offer an elective SAT/ACT preparation course.

Be prepared

In addition to greater preparation, determining which students are best prepared to take college entrance exams is another tool he looks to put to better use.

“In the past we have not done a lot of counseling to determine who takes the ACT at FCHS,” Green said. Green plans for that to change, as does Swilley.

“What we want to do is encourage our students who have been prepared to be successful on the ACT to take the test,” he said.

If large numbers of students take the test without having prepared in advance, this correlates with lower overall scores. In Fairfield County, 76 students in the 2013 graduating class took the ACT, nearly half the class. In 2012, 110 seniors took the ACT and in 2011 102 took the test from FCHS.

Green wonders how many of the students will attend a four-year college institution.

“The number of students taking the test should correlate with the number of students a school is sending to four-year institutions of higher learning,” he said. “If the numbers are out of balance here, we need to explore that.”

Green said he and Swilley will look at the ACT data because in the past many seniors only took the ACT one time. He believes students should take the standardized tests multiple times.

He said he and Swilley will dig into the data to see who took that ACT, what courses that student took to prepare for the ACT/SAT including if they took a college prep or honors tract, and how the student performed in those classes and on the test.

Those numbers will help with academic advisement and be beneficial to parents, he said. This would be more reason to tell them which courses a child who aspires to college should have. Less rigorous courses could help with GPA but the more rigorous courses prove more beneficial in the long run for the college bound students.

“While college admissions tests are imperfect indicators of school effectiveness, these assessments provide useful information about South Carolina students entering higher education,” State Superintendent of Education Dr. Mick Zais said. “While nationwide assessments continue to show a reading gap between South Carolina and the nation, it is encouraging to see the gap is closing. We must continue to address reading gaps because reading is fundamental to everything else in a student’s education. If students cannot read, they will not succeed in school.”

All South Carolina colleges and universities accept either ACT or SAT scores for admission. The five South Carolina universities receiving the most scores from all South Carolina ACT test-takers were the University of South Carolina (Columbia), Clemson, College of Charleston, Coastal Carolina and Winthrop.

Take the test

As a principal, Green said he encouraged college bound students to take both to determine which showcase their strengths best. The ACT is a curriculum based test that evaluates what a student has learned whereas the SAT evaluates how a student thinks based upon what he or she should have been exposed to during high school education.

Green said that while in Chesterfield, a school valedictorian scored about 1200 on the SAT but received the ACT equivalent of a 1400 score on that test. The way that student processed knowledge was better revealed on the ACT.

“There has been a (mistaken) belief over the years in South Carolina that the most prepared students take the SAT and those not as prepared take the ACT,” Green said. “But the ACT is not an inferior assessment.”

The ACT is a curriculum-based achievement exam designed to measure the academic skills that are taught in schools and is used as an indicator for success in first-year college courses. The SAT is an implied learning test that measures how students think based on their experiences both in and out of the classroom setting.

The ACT includes four subtests: English, mathematics, reading, and science reasoning. Scores are reported in each of those as well as the overall composite score using a 36-point scale. The percentage of South Carolina students meeting all four ACT benchmarks is at the highest level since information was made publicly available on this metric (2002).

Gaps between South Carolina and the national average scores closed for the composite score and four subtests.