Opinion

Montgomery: Scores on the ACT Have Dropped. But That Doesn’t Mean Changing Our Goals; We Must Do More to Help Students Meet Them

By Scott Montgomery | December 9, 2018

At the start of soccer season, no matter the level or age of the players, a good coach outlines goals for the team. Some goals may be a big dream the players have their eye on — like a league championship — while others may seem smaller, yet still critical to the success of the team. What matters is that a coach supports, trains, and prepares the team to reach those goals.

Of course, we don’t set goals only in sports; we set them for all kinds of endeavors in life, including in education. The scores from the nationwide ACT college admission test for the class of 2018 tell us that we still have work to do before we reach our goal of having every student prepared to succeed in college.

Since last year, student readiness in math decreased, and just under 40 percent of students were fully prepared for success in college — meaning they met at least three of the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks in the four core subject areas (English, reading, math, and science). Traditionally underserved students continued to struggle mightily, trailing behind their peers. Far too many students are graduating from high school without the academic skills they’ll need to perform at a high level in college or the workplace.

Yet our goal cannot change. It must match our aspirations: If we want students to be successful in college and in their careers, we must support them in their journey to college and career readiness.

To reach that goal, states must have rigorous learning standards that address core skills and essential knowledge. Over the past eight years, we’ve seen states raise their academic standards to be more in line with what students will need to know and do to thrive in our changing economy. These standards set big goals for all students.

But raising the standards isn’t enough — classroom instruction must be aligned to those standards. A RAND Corporation report released earlier this year found that most teachers were not equipped with materials aligned to their states’ more rigorous standards. ACT’s 2016 National Curriculum Survey noted that both elementary and secondary teachers seemed to still be emphasizing content that either is not found in recently adopted standards or may now be at a different grade level. We must equip educators with aligned instructional resources and professional development to support standards-driven instruction, particularly for underserved students.

While it’s easy to get frustrated by the recent ACT scores, we should channel that frustration to make research-based decisions about how to best support students. As a soccer coach, I’m constantly reviewing practice and game performances (i.e., data) to better equip my players with the skills they need to hone. As an education advocate, I value data because it allows us to look critically at student performance and identify ways to better support achievement. Data literacy for teachers, as well as school and district leaders, should be prioritized in efforts to improve instruction.

The data we received last month shows us that we must support students and teachers to reach these goals. For our students to succeed, teachers must be equipped with resources that are aligned to their state’s standards and professional development to support rigorous and differentiated instruction. We also must ensure that resources are equitably distributed to all students, especially traditionally underserved students, and that they receive the same exposure to rigorous, college preparatory coursework.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve heard arguments that the dips in student performance are the fault of states’ academic standards. But lowering expectations will only make students appear more successful in the short term while hindering their chances for success in the long term.

As a coach, I expect to lose a game from time to time. I’ve watched my players struggle, both as a team and individually. But I’ve never given up on the expectation that we can achieve our goals. Instead, we’ve worked harder — and smarter — using feedback to inform our practices.

Now is not the time to give up on our students or on our goals. It’s a time for us to reflect on how each of us — policymakers, K-12 administrators, educators, parents, and advocates — can better support classroom learning and continue to invest in that goal. Our children deserve nothing less.

Scott Montgomery is vice president for policy, advocacy, and government relations at ACT.

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