Gap narrows between Iowa students and national peers on ACT

West High students continue to lead state, Marion makes Corridor's largest gain

(Liz Martin/The Gazette)
(Liz Martin/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — The news is mixed for Iowa’s 2014 high-school graduates when it comes to their performance on the ACT.

With an average composite score of 22 on the 36-point college-entrance exam, Iowa students bested their national counterparts’ average composite score by a full point. However, that represents a 0.2-point narrowing of the gap in comparison to 2013. The national average composite ACT score increased by 0.1 point between 2013 and 2014, while Iowa’s decreased by 0.1 point during the same time frame.

Iowa, which in 2013 tied with Wisconsin for second-highest mean composite score in the nation among states that test at least half of their high-school graduates, fell to third in the same measurement this year, tying with Ohio and Kansas. Minnesota again took first, with 22.9, while Wisconsin repeated a second-place finish with 22.2.

“Even though it’s testing a high percentage and its scores dipped a little bit, we’re still seeing high achievement levels among Iowa’s graduates and that’s an encouraging thing,” said Ed Colby, director of public relations for Iowa City-based ACT.

State and national ACT data includes all students who take the exam in a given graduating class regardless of where they attend school — such as public and non-public schools. Since 2013, ACT-issued score reports include test takers who complete the exam with assistance or special accommodations.

ACT participation has grown both statewide and nationally. According to ACT, 1.85 million members (57 percent) of the national 2014 graduating class took the test, an increase of 46,544 and 3 percent since 2013. Participation in Iowa rose to 22,931 and 68 percent this year, a 405-student gain and up from 66 percent in 2013.

“Hopefully it means more Iowa students are hoping to attend college and we see that as a positive thing,” Colby said.

Colby called the increase “encouraging” but said it may account for why scores declined.

“Typically when we see an expanded base of test takers, it means we’re including more students of lower levels of preparation, the types of students who haven’t taken the ACT before because they haven’t had aspirations to go to college,” he said. “We don’t have information to confirm that but we have seen that in the past.”

A local look

Corridor high schools boasted scores above the national average. Clear Creek Amana High School tied the state average composite score, while public and non-public high schools in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Solon and Marion bested the statewide mean. Despite a 0.3-point decrease between 2013 and 2014, West High School in Iowa City continued to lead the Corridor — of the schools that provided data to The Gazette — this time with an average composite score of 25.8. Chace Ramey, chief community affairs officer for the Iowa City Community School District, supplied that information as well as data showing that students at the district’s other high school, City High, earned an average composite score of 24.2, which is 0.4 point lower than 2013’s mean.

Marion students were able to resist the national trend, notching a one-year 0.9-point increase to 23.5 in its average-composite score for 2014. Only Prairie and Xavier high schools in Cedar Rapids, both with 0.4-point upticks, made gains between 2013 and 2014 in students’ mean composite scores.

“I think any type of assessment is another piece in the puzzle of what equals a good school,” said Sarah Pinion, superintendent of the Marion Independent School District, of Marion High School’s improvement on the exam. “No one thing makes that happen or not happen. It’s a mixture of many things coming together. ... While we may focus on what happens at the high school, that only happens because of the foundation that has been laid from preschool through middle school to get them ready for high school.”

Xavier Principal Tom Keating credited his school’s staff, as well as test takers and their families, with the third year in a row of overall ACT gains.

“We’ve got an outstanding staff that’s working with a very rigorous curriculum,” he said.

All three comprehensive high schools in the Cedar Rapids Community School District — Jefferson, Kennedy and Washington — experienced respective dips of 0.4-point, 0.2-point and 0.1-point, in mean overall ACT scores, but stayed above the state and national averages.

That fact comforted Karla Ries, the district’s director of instructional services, who called the declines “slight” and said they are “not indicative of anything that would be concerning.”

Colby said the answer for Iowa schools hoping to boost their students’ performance on the ACT can be found in the classroom.

Reporter’s note: The Gazette did not receive subject-level score information or participation data from the Iowa City Community School District by press time. The Linn-Mar Community School District did not supply any 2014 ACT-related data.

Update: The Linn-Mar Community School District's average composite score for 2014 is 24.5, an increase of 0.3 points from 2013, Communications and Media Relations Coordinator Sandie Rohrer said.

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