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Iowa students excel, buck national ACT trends

Iowa City Community School District graduates continue to be among best test-takers

Iowa students continue to go against the trend when it comes to the ACT.

Members of the state’s 2013 graduating class continued to best their peers throughout the country on the college-entrance exam, earning an average composite score of 22.1 in comparison to the nationwide mean of 20.9 on the 36-point test.

Iowa’s average is unchanged from 2012, while the nationwide mean declined by two-tenths of a point, enough to tie Iowa with Wisconsin for the second-highest average composite score in the nation among states where more than half of 2013 graduates take the test. Minnesota’s students led the nation with an average composite score of 23.

“Iowa is one of the more stable states when it comes to ACT scores,” said Ed Colby, director of public relations for the Iowa City-based nonprofit responsible for the assessment. “Iowa’s at a pretty good level and has been strong in that area for a long time.”

Almost 1.8 million students, 54 percent of the nation’s 2013 high-school graduates, took the test. That record number represents an increase of more than 133,000 from 2012, when 52 percent of that year’s graduates participated in the exam. Nine states notched 100 percent participation rates as taking the ACT in some areas is mandatory for students to graduate high school.

“We’ve also broadened the pool of test takers in terms of academic preparation,” Colby said. “We’re including more students who might not have taken the ACT in the past because they weren’t necessarily attending or applying to college.”

In Iowa, where the ACT is not a required exam, 22,526 students in the class of 2013 participated in the assessment, down 593 from the 23,119 who did so in 2012. However, a larger proportion of Iowa’s 2013 high-school graduates – 66 percent – took the test than their 2012 counterparts who only notched a 63-percent participation rate.

This year was the first in which the score reports include data from students who took the exam with extended time. Often these learners have disabilities and require accommodations in order to take the test, Colby said. That meant an additional 279 students, or 1.24 percent, throughout Iowa had their scores factored into the statewide results.

“Because it’s very important to the states and other constituents to track the information from year to year, we kept that standard until this year,” Colby said. “Since we changed the benchmarks this year, which altered some of the tracking anyway, we thought it was a good time to put those students in the tracking report. It was overdue.”

College readiness

The ACT exam includes sections in math, science, reading and English, which are also scored on a 36-point scale. ACT uses these scores and grade data from college freshmen to set College Readiness Benchmark Scores, which show at what level a student would have to score in order to receive at least a “C” grade in a corresponding freshman-level college class in that subject.

This year, the benchmark for reading increased one point while it dropped one point for science. Yet 32 percent of 2013 Iowa graduates and 26 percent nationwide met or exceeded all four benchmarks, compared with 30 percent of 2012 graduates statewide and 25 percent throughout the U.S.

“It’s not the test that has changed,” Colby said. “The ACT has stayed the same. It’s success in college that has varied.”

In the corridor

While scores remained steady for the entire state, performance on the ACT varied between high schools in the Iowa City-Cedar Rapids corridor.

Iowa City Community School District graduates continued to be among the best test-takers in the area, with a district average of 25.5, up one-tenth of a point from 25.4 in 2012. Iowa City West High School’s 2013 graduates earned a mean composite score of 26.1 while their Iowa City High School counterparts achieved a 24.6.

“I’m really pleased that we’re staying in that midrange 25.5,” said Curriculum Director Pam Ehly. “It’s a really good indication that our students are doing well.”

Ehly pointed to a number of factors for students’ success, including opportunities to take college-level courses and the fact that many learners decide to complete four years of all four core subjects even though they’re not required.

“It’s students who enjoy and try in school and parents who support them,” she said of West High’s performance in particular. “From the school, it’s a very strong academic program that supports those children and that’s represented in the results.”

The Cedar Rapids Community School District’s overall average composite score rose by four-tenths of a point, to 24.2 from 23.8, between 2013 and 2012. Performance remained stable for students at Cedar Rapids Jefferson High School, where students averaged a 23.2 composite score for the second year in a row. At Kennedy High School, scores jumped to 24.5 from 24.1 in 2012. Washington High School students doubled Kennedy’s one-year gain, with a mean composite score of 24.8 in 2013, up from last year’s 24.0.

“I feel very good about our performance,” said Karla Ries, director of instructional services for the district, who attributed the high marks to “consistent curriculum” and “quality instruction” across the district’s high schools. “As I look at the five-year trends, I see that we stay high and have been high, continually making improvements over time.”

The news was less positive for the 2013 graduates of Prairie, Linn-Mar and Clear Creek Amana high schools, all of which posted average composite score declines – 0.9, 0.2 and 0.4, respectively – when compared to 2012. All three high schools’ 2013 scores were still above the state and national averages, with Prairie students earning a 22.4 mean composite, Clear Creek Amana 2013 graduates with 22.5 and Linn-Mar learners with a 24.2.

Update: The ACT scores of some area schools were not included in this story because The Gazette did not obtain them until after press time.  Here are their results. You can find more information, including the percentage of graduates who took the exam at each school, over on The Gazette's Education Notebook.

Solon High School's 2013 graduates who took the ACT garnered a 23.4 composite score while their Marion High School counterparts earned a 22.6, a 0.1 increase over the performance of 2012's participants.

Xavier High School students averaged a 24.3 composite, a 0.5 point increase over 2012. Test takers at Regina Junior-Senior High School earned an average overall score of 24.5.

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