published Thursday, February 10th, 2011

ACT scores drop at most region high schools

by Kelli Gauthier
  • photo
    Bradley junior Halley Carden, right, receives an ACT reference book from veteran English teacher Karen McGough during an after school help session Wednesday. It was Halley's first day to attend strategy class.
    Staff Photo by Tim Barber

At a time when educators and business leaders are calling for graduates to be better prepared for life after high school, the ACT scores at 26 of 31 regional high schools went down in 2010, records show.

The average decline of about one point in Southeast Tennessee high schools mirrors the decline at the state level. The top ACT score is 36. The region's average in 2010 was 18.4, about one point behind the state average of 19.6.

"It's a state trend, and it's beyond a concern, it's a focus," said Robert Sharpe, secondary schools director for Hamilton County Schools.

Generally accepted as a standard national barometer of what students have learned in high school and what they're prepared to learn in college, there has been an increased focus on the ACT in states such as Tennessee, which has intensified academic standards in recent years.

When 11th-graders take the test in March, it will be the third year the state has required all juniors to take the test.

Some school district officials say the lower scores can be attributed to the greater number of students taking the test, including those who don't plan to go on to college.

"The bottom of the class," said Tommy Layne, principal of Sequatchie County High School, where the average ACT score fell from 20.4 to 17.4 last year.

"They're going to drive a truck, and they know it, or they've already got a job with their daddy. ... 'I'm going to flip burgers and that's all I'm going to do,'" Layne said.

"Why would a kid need to take [the ACT] if they're 100 percent sure they're as far as they're going to go, and probably further than they ever dreamed they'd get?" he asked.

Amanda Turner, the senior counselor at Bradley Central High School, said her school is concerned about its 2.3-point drop in scores. Because many Bradley Central students can't afford to take an ACT prep course, the administration contracted with an English teacher for ACT tutoring after school.

"We do believe in making every student college ready. We have been pushing [the ACT] more, so more students have taken it, and they're the kids who haven't taken those higher-level maths, and they're not going to score as well," she said.

Ashley Searles, a junior at Bradley Central, is taking the after-school ACT prep course. Her goal is to get as much college scholarship money as she can. But many students still don't realize the importance of a good score, she said.

"I didn't know anything about the ACT at all from freshman to sophomore year; my first time ever hearing anything about the ACT was first semester of this year," the 17-year-old said. "[Students] need get in the mindset of how serious this test can actually be."

Students at Hamilton County's Tyner Academy are among the few whose average ACT scores improved from 2009 to 2010. Although the school's 2010 average score of 17.2 is still below the state average, lead school counselor Rita Waller said that's higher than the 16.7 the previous year.

More than 80 percent of the school's graduates go on to college, Waller said. Students who score 21 or higher on the test are eligible for the HOPE scholarship and other financial aid, she added.

"We have more parents buying into the fact that they need their student to take the ACT to have access to scholarships," Waller said. "Even going to Chatt State ... there is not a place kids can get money without taking the ACT."

Tyner also has implemented a "21 Club," in which students who score 21 or higher receive special privileges.

"They can come out of uniform on Mondays; there's a poster in the hall with their picture on it; they get in front of the lunch line," Waller said. "It's been a race to the top."

Sharpe said Hamilton County's scores are starting to improve on the Explore and Plan tests -- the pre-ACT tests given in eighth and 10th grades, respectively.

"This ACT culture that we're trying to build in the district is starting to take hold in the middle school," he said.

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about Kelli Gauthier...

Kelli Gauthier covers K-12 education in Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She started at the paper as an intern in 2006, crisscrossing the region writing feature stories from Pikeville, Tenn., to Lafayette, Ga. She also covered crime and courts before taking over the education beat in 2007. A native of Frederick, Md., Kelli came south to attend Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism. Before newspapers, ...

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drrfling said...

"Some school district officials say the lower scores can be attributed to the greater number of students taking the test, including those who don't plan to go on to college."

There is much statistical truth to that statement. On the other hand, when the "rating" of the teachers are tied to the grade average in the class, and the rating they get from students, there is inevitable "grade inflation" that goes hand in hand with "quality degradation" that shows up when students are measured against the national average of ACT.

"They're going to drive a truck, and they know it, or they've already got a job with their daddy. ... 'I'm going to flip burgers and that's all I'm going to do,'" Layne said.

"Why would a kid need to take [the ACT] if they're 100 percent sure they're as far as they're going to go, and probably further than they ever dreamed they'd get?" he asked

The same reason as why it is a National Shame when it is well-known that some high school graduates cannot pass an 8th grade exam in English. The performace on an ACT test has nothing to do with whether a kid intends to go to college or whether they already have a job. It has to do with the QUALITY and STANDARDS of Tennessee's high school EDUCATION. It is part of the ills of compulsory "education" in the USA. To make the point of the absurdity of the statement made about why should the ACT scores be of any concern to kids who don't intend to go to college, would he felt the same if the ACT scores are below what a First Grader could score on the test? "Hey, my kid will have a job from my company, why I should I care if he can pass a first grade test?" Shouldn't you?

February 10, 2011 at 8:09 a.m.
Jim_Ludwig said...

Of course ACT scores are going down. The totally clueless, ivory tower elitist, in Nashville have insisted that schools give the ACT to all students. Large numbers taking the test could care less about the test. They Christmas tree their answers and bring down the scores. It is amazing the that the scores are not lower.

I am a teacher who has given the test. I have watched some students, who began the test seriously, get tired of it by the end and stop putting much effort into it. True education will never improve unless the state school board members, and those making the rules, actually spend time in a Title 1 classroom. Doctors and lawyers make the rules for doctors and lawyers, teachers should be making the rules for teachers not those doctors and lawyers.

February 10, 2011 at 8:28 a.m.
Jim_Ludwig said...

I agree with drrfling that compulsory attendance is ruining our schools. I was a high school dropout at 17. I knew then what I know now. I did not NEED to know what they wanted to teach me, and I had been in Honor Society. The state mantra of rigor and relevance does not work when much of what is being taught is irrelevant to those students lives. You do not need to know that an earth worm has five hearts to enjoy fishing.

Until a kid knows how to read well, write adequately and do basic math they do not need to know anything else from school. If you want to know what is wrong just watch are you smarter than a fifth grader. Teachers are forced to try and teach kids things that they do not need about mythologies and astronomy, etc before the kid can even read well.

How can anyone but a politician or political appointee ever think that a kid who has failed math for eight years will be able to understand algebra as a ninth grader. The ivory tower elitists in Nashville expect this of all ninth grade students, even if they are at a second grade level. The same applies to English. Stop trying to teach a kid literature when they do not even know how to read well. Only the three R's should be taught for the first three grades and students should not move on until they have MASTERED them. From then on they could be taught other things. We send them out crippled from the start and expect them to catch up on crutches without ever repairing the break.

We may not have to force kids to go to school if they were able to be successful early on. Until we separate NEED TO KNOW from NICE TO KNOW we have to require kids to go to school who just drag down the whole system. They are not there to learn and just keep everyone else from reaching their potential. When we force kids to take classes for which they are not prepared and have no interest we doom them and the system to failure. I would bet that most of the state school board could not pass my no multiple choice Algebara I final let alone Algebra II. But these clueless individuals think all kids can pass Algebra II because other states are doing. They are doing the same thing TN is forced to do. Find ways to get the kids better calculators and push buttons and make guesses without ever really understanding algebra. It is a national thing and TN is being a lemming.

February 10, 2011 at 9:35 a.m.
nthomas said...

Stop the excuses!!! Our young people are the greatest. They are intelligent, compassionate, and wonderful to be around.

With the support of the parents, community, and leaders, the students can and will learn. I have taught math for thirty eight years and I can attest to the fact that today's students are just as intelligent as any that have come before. We are a public school system and we take all - we do not select those we allow to come to our school. We take the poor, the neglected, the well-off, the handicapped, the special needs students, the geniuses, the students of drug addicts, the students raised in abusive homes, the students who come to school hungry, the students whose parents work at night and must leave their children alone because they cannot afford to provide other care, and we take students of parents, who for some reason, do not care about their child's education.

We do not send only the brightest to our schools which takes place in some countries with whom our test scores are compared. With all students taking the ACT our average scores will go down but the scores of the students who seriously intend to go to a college or university will increase. I believe everyone should stop finger pointing and blaming others. Our objective should be to pull together and put out efforts into helping each student reach their full potential and be successful in their chosen career path.

February 10, 2011 at 10:48 a.m.
Jim_Ludwig said...

It is not finger pointing it is fact. Just like kids grow at different rates physically they grow at different rates mentally. Both can be affected by the environment but are also genetic. Every student will not ready or able to do Algebra II by the time they are seniors some not even Algebra I.

Everyone is gifted and everyone is handicapped. Rather than point kids on the path to improving their gifting and being successful we beat them down with their areas of weakness. I think in words not pictures. I am not mechanically or musically inclined but I can do math. I can not fix my car or play an instrument. I have had some of the poorest algebra students able to rebuild an engine. They are often thought of as dumb while I would be thought of as smart. I am not forced to learn an instrument but they are forced to "learn" algebra.

I have a reputation for taking some of the poorest algebra students and getting them to understand. There are still some who do not understand how to do a three step equation no matter how hard I or they try. That students has to go on to Geometry and Algebra II. How dumb is that?

Students grow mentally at different rates. If we require them to continually move on before they are ready they will never be ready. It is not a matter of teaching all students. It is teaching them what they need to know when they are able to learn it. Students through out the country are being GIVEN an Algebra II credit who actually lack even a basic math level of understanding. It is STUPID to put these kids in Algebra II in the first place. It is nothing but political pandering.

February 10, 2011 at 11:28 a.m.
nowfedup said...

Wonder how much parents attitude and involvement are part of test scores. If we put as much emphasis on real education as sports in HS/College, outside of putting a lot media jocks out of work, we might have a nation that competes at world class levels, not 25th of 35 industrialized nations in education. Plain ole "Poor excuse 101" to say "Well they do not need more in basic education as not going to college" New flash Principal, they need basics to be really employable,you are selling them out, should be removed if no other reason then using "expectations" as for failures, tell students such and they will expect to perform at that level

February 10, 2011 at 1:26 p.m.

How many parents of the juniors (who are obligated to take the ACT) have a college degree?

Don't try to re-invent the wheel and expect anything to change.

February 10, 2011 at 3:21 p.m.
whatsthefuss said...

Stupip Is As Stupid Does. I think this principal has a great deal of experience driving a truck. He sounds like he knows what he is talking about. Either that or his daddy is the superintendent. That would explain it!!

February 10, 2011 at 7:29 p.m.
Jim_Ludwig said...

Rationalizing a denominator was because slide rules could not do problems with radicals in the denominator. We no longer use slide rules but students are forced to learn to rationalize denominators. Even engineers do not factor trinomials into binomials but we try to tell students they might use it some day. It is something they will only ever do in school so why learn it all.

February 10, 2011 at 7:30 p.m.
SavartiTN said...

I think that many of the posts here explain why the students don't perform so well on the ACT. It appears that there is little expectation that they can.

February 10, 2011 at 8:21 p.m.
Jim_Ludwig said...

Would you expect a fifth grader to do calculus. They still could not do it. I start a student where they are and push them to go as far as they can go. Savarti you have absolutely no idea what you are talking about if you have not been in a class room with these kids. It infuriates me that those who are as clueless as the state school board would comment.

February 10, 2011 at 9:19 p.m.
bapman1 said...

ACT scores are down about a point across the state, as noted in the article. One thing people haven't discussed is how value-added performance plays into all this. Some schools are doing better than others at advancing student achievement - see the growth vs achievement chart from the Education Consumers Foundation at You can pull up individual schools or entire districts.

February 11, 2011 at 12:18 p.m.
SavartiTN said...

Mr. Ludwig, you didn't get very far with that argument back in 2007 when you wrote that article in the Chattanoogan. You were shown very explicitly just how wrong that you were. Mr. Burrage gave some of the most compelling examples of how math is used after high school.

I will stand by my previous statement. If the students have teacher who have no faith in them then they have little incentive to perform. I would be very upset if my children had a teacher that believes as you do.

Have you ever taken the ACT? I find it to be a very basic exam. If the students were learning what they should be learning from K-11 then they should have no problem scoring well on the ACT. But, the problem is that they AREN'T being taught effectively enough to learn. By teachers like you.

I attended Hamilton County schools decades ago. My teachers had every expectation that we would excel. Six years after I graduated, I took the ACT...cold turkey...and scored a 26.5. I went on the college and earned several degrees. I used rationalizing denominators in my upper level math. I used math in my work place.

BTW, HigherLevelThinker, neither of my parents had a college degree but they were highly intelligent. Why should we not have the hopes that our children will do better than we did? That is called progress.

But, in your defense, Mr. Ludwig, part of the problem today may be that the current generation is an instant gratification generation. They want it NOW. If it isn't in the form of a text or Facebook, they aren't interested. Maybe the ACT needs to change format. However, I think that the ACT is a very effective gage of how well our children have learned which means that it is an effective gage of how well that they are being taught and that is, apparently, is what has you so up in arms. Therefore, I think that students should have to make a minimum of 18 on the ACT in order to graduate. And, for that matter, to decide whether or not teachers get promotions and bonuses.

February 11, 2011 at 4:45 p.m.
SavartiTN said...

Oh, and, Mr. Ludwig, I could do calculus in the fifth grade. I am not the one that is clueless.

February 11, 2011 at 4:46 p.m.
drrfling said...

nthomas wrote, "I have taught math for thirty eight years and I can attest to the fact that today's students are just as intelligent as any that have come before."

Based on what I know, the statement says the same thing as "kid today are just as ill-educated and unmotivated as kid were in the public schools that came before"

"We are a public school system and we take all -" That is NOT the same as we FORCE all to attend. Taking all of those who WANT to attend will at least elminate most of the disruptive students whose worst punishment from high school is to be kicked out -- which is what they wanted in the first place.

That is one of the reasons the US high school students ranked lower than even the students in some third world countries. I went to high school in Hong Kong, consistently ranked No. 1 or 2 in the world ranking of students in math. We were in an environment where it is very difficult to get into ANY high school. All the students in MY high school were very serious students, fiercely competitive to do well. I am still telling my friends, to their shock and bewilderment, that I studied harder in high school than I've ever studied anywhere later in the USA, including Yale where I received my PhD degree with a perfect grade record in 4. When I entered college, two years before the British system of Metriculation, I already had most of the material taught in that college, in math, physics, chemistry, and other subjects, and that college accepted only the TOP 10% of students in their graduating classes. That's how dismal the high school system in the USA WAS, and the standards became only worse since!

"Stop the excuses!!! Our young people are the greatest. They are intelligent, compassionate, and wonderful to be around."

Stop dreaming. YOU contributed as much to the failure of the US students in high school and college as most of the well-qualified and well-intentioned teachers were abused by the compulsory schooling system that cannot maintain any decent standards.

Just look at the GRADUATE schools in math or math related areas, anywhere in the USA, and you'll find about 80 percent of them are FOREIGN students, the best ones from Asia.

To go one level higher, I looked at the flag ship journal in my field, and I find about 75 percent of the authors who published in that journal have Chinese names, and another 5 to 10 percent in other foreign names. 30 years ago, I was an editor of that journal, for 3 consecutive terms, whose rejection rate on submitted papers was about 80 percent overall. The foreign authors were only about 50 percent then.

Folks, it's about time that we wake up to the reality of the poor quality of the US high school system, which in turn affected the poor quality of the college system, and the end result is quite apparent in journal publications and other measures of success to anyone except the extremely myopic or blind.

February 12, 2011 at 7:48 a.m.
Jim_Ludwig said...

Thank you drrfling. Even in Hong Kong, where the parents value learning and push it on their students, it is physically not possible for all to perform at the same level. We ignore brain science. Neural connections in the brain are as real as muscles in a leg. No matter how hard you exercise everyone will not develop the same.

The bulk of neural connections occur early in life. Savarti you were stimulated at home and the neural connections were made. You can not fathom what it is like to not have them and think that the others must also. For many the connections were never made. We must build on the neural connections starting from where the student is when they enter our classes. You can not build a house on a foundation with only a fourth of the bricks in place. You must first fill in the missing bricks to the foundation. Each and every kid in the classroom comes in with a different number of bricks. Some have moved past the foundation and I can start on the house. Most need lots of bricks before I can even begin on the house.

Svati please tell me, because I do what it takes for my students, how can a teacher get EVERY student in their class of 30 to understand Algebra when: They have failed math for eight or nine years. They do not know their times tables and have to use their fingers to add single digit numbers. They must be FORCED to work while in the classroom. They will not do homework. They will not study. They are absent a minimum of one day a week. They are only at school at all because the law says so.

Explain to me how it is fair to grade a teacher on those students taking a state test that the student does not care about and answers randomly. Explain to me how it is the teacher's fault if they can not score an 18 on the ACT that they are forced to take and answer randomly.

February 13, 2011 at 6:44 a.m.
Jim_Ludwig said...

Savarti the reason I call you, and the State School Board, and the State Board of Education clueless, is because you were not in classes with these kids. When you went to school they were in vocational classes succeeding in learning a trade, and are probably successful today. Many at the state level went to schools that did not even have these kids. They can not fathom that parents are not pushing their kids to do their best. Many of these kids have no positive parental influence other than the teachers who patiently explain, for the tenth time, how to solve a two step equation. My challenge to them is to get out of their ivory towers and come visit my classroom. Come work with a student who has had two step equations for three years previously. I want to see them demonstrate, explain and show the students how to do two step equations and have the student score a hundred on the two step equation test. Then I want them to come back a week later and see the same student stare at a two step equation and have no clue where to begin because they learned something else in between. And we teaches patiently explain it again without making the student feel dumb.(for this alone good teachers deserve recognition, praise and more compensation because most people could not do it) Because the students are not dumb!!! But we will push them on to Algebra II where they will still need to have the two step equations explained to them again but will never understand radical equations. Their neural connections are not all the same.

February 13, 2011 at 7:54 a.m.
Jim_Ludwig said...

I have taught adult high school and seen miracles. I had two different 40 something ladies grow mentally in an amazing way. The Gateway exam was only at a pre-algebra level although called Algebra I. One lady tried her hardest and took the longest and only scored an eight the first time and then a twelve on the next time. It takes 30 out 55 to be passing. The third time she over doubled her score and passed the test. I recognized a difference in her reasoning ability that had developed. The other lady did not pass the Gateway the first time. She was in my Algebra I then Algebra II class. I watched her figure out a problem in Algebra II before I taught her how that students have struggled with the concept after I taught them how. These ladies were more mature and the neural connections developed over time and life. I had a principal who did not understand why his son struggled with Algebra in high school but not in college. His son was older and more mature in college. The brain grows just like the body grows, over time. We must stop ignoring brain science and trying to build houses on brickless foundations. We must first take the time to build the good foundations. This does not occur at the same rate with every student. But we push them on to the next level expecting the next teacher to be able to fill in the missing pieces and their part of the house. Trying doing that with twenty to thirty-five students at the same time all with at different levels.

February 13, 2011 at 7:55 a.m.
drrfling said...

Jim_Ludwig wrote, "Thank you drrfling. Even in Hong Kong, where the parents value learning and push it on their students, it is physically not possible for all to perform at the same level."

Of course not! It should be self-evident that "All Men are Born UNEQUAL". So why should anyone expect "all to perform at the same level"? What any school should do is to optimize what a student is CAPABLE to perform, given his genes, born intelligence, or whatever the determinating factor of a student's success in any given area. The schools (and students) in Hong Kong are doing a great job at that. Even as the top-ranked high schools in math in the world, SOME of the students are deficient in their math skills.

Jim_Ludwig continued, "The bulk of neural connections occur early in life." Then you should be aware that some are BORN mentally handicapped, and no neural connections any time during said person's brain will make the person mentally capable of performing above the level of an imbecil or moron.

Jim_Ludwig went on, "Savarti you were stimulated at home and the neural connections were made." Irrelevant. He may be INCAPABLE of realizing the benefits.

"Svati please tell me, because I do what it takes for my students, how can a teacher get EVERY student in their class of 30 to understand Algebra when:"

The given conditions are entirely IRRELEVANT. You are BORN with some limiting factors that cannot be improved. The first school I entered, after giving me a written test for admission, placed me in the THIRD GRADE, at the age of 6. I was very fortunate to have been born "more intelligent" than most others. That's ALL. I never aspire to be an NBA basketball player because I was born physically too SHORT, just as most of the NBA players are too short in their "intelligence", whether measured by IQ of other instruments of intelligence measures. :-)

February 13, 2011 at 10:06 a.m.
SavartiTN said...

I suppose, Mr. Ludwig, part of the fault would lie with a system that allows those students to fail math for 8 or 9 years and then expects the 10th grade teacher to get it all through to them. If they would let the students suffer the consequences of the failure, i.e., not passing, then things might be different. Or put the pressure on the teachers in the lower grades to not pass a failing student. Who is responsible for allowing this to continue?

Today, my 15 year old grandson tells me that he failed a test on factoring trinomials. His teacher tried two different methods...FOIL and the grid no avail. The entire class did not get it.

I went over a technique for factoring trinomials with him for about 30 minutes. He then went on the complete the 20 problems on his worksheet...without missing even one of them! We then moved on to solving Quadratics. He got that, too. All in less time than it takes for him to sit through one day's math class. And I am not a teacher.

I'm not sure what the problem had been...brains not developing at the same time or teacher can't get the concept across or both. What would be your professional take on that?

February 13, 2011 at 11:36 p.m.
Jim_Ludwig said...

There are a few good points from this. Number one is he had someone to go over it with him. There have been studies done for years that show the majority of learning (let's call it sinking in) is from homework. 1. A large percentage of kids will not or can not spend the time to do homework. 2. A large number of kids have no one at home to help them with their homework. 3. A large number of kids just copy their homework. That is why I do not give graded homework. The kids who know how to do it right spend unnecessary time doing for others to copy. The kids who do not know, but try, spend their time practicing how to do it wrong if they have no help at home. Those that have to go to work or take care of siblings, etc and too honest to copy are punished. I have had my opinion on not giving GRADED homework printed in the NEA magazine. I knew how to do the math so did not do it in high school but just copied my friends and got credit. Teachers frequently give a large percentage of grades for homework because the kids can not pass the tests. The students then copy the homework, fail the tests and are passed on with good grades. This is one way states say that all their students have passed Algebra II before graduation.

February 14, 2011 at 6:13 a.m.
Jim_Ludwig said...

This comment will be a very different perspective than you might expect Savarti. You got your grandson to get a meaningless answer but he still does not understand factoring. This is a MAJOR problem in our education system. It is "recommended" practice to teach all kinds of tips and tricks to get a meaningless answer. This is a huge reason our top students, not just our middle and lower, are getting behind. THE ANSWER DOES NOT MEAN ANYTHING IN MATH. We are trying to teach kids things before they are mentally ready so we have them fumble their way into answers. If only those who were ready were in a class the teacher could teach understanding of the math behind getting the answer. It is great that your grandson had someone and was able to learn your method. I teach factoring several ways and allow them to choose. If things were done the way they should be the students would not only be able to get the answer either way but understand why each method worked. That is the true learning we are leaving out in the USA. We just have to get the kids to be able to get an answer to pass a state test. They continue on without the needed understanding to actually progress. There is actually use of something called algetiles. If the student can make a rectangle with them they can get an answer. That is not high school math.

February 14, 2011 at 6:25 a.m.
Jim_Ludwig said...

"I'm not sure what the problem had been...brains not developing at the same time or teacher can't get the concept across or both. What would be your professional take on that"

It will surprise you that I say some of both. I would say that most in your grandson's class were not mentally ready. Factoring of ax^2+bx+c equations has always been one of the most difficult lessons, even when only the top kids took it. We teach them to foil the answer on multiple choice state tests because they can not actually figure out the answer.

Though out elementary school there are large numbers of teachers who hated math and some still do not understand it well, and some avoid spending time on it. In high school there are often teachers who understand math too well and can not relate to students who do not understand (this is really true in college). Some times having math majors teach math is not the best way to go. BTW: I was a science major. This is not always the case and many math majors do a great job but it is sometimes the problem. Most teachers get the point across but students are not ready for it.

1) Elementary schools should have specific math and reading teachers rather then PE, music and art teachers. They need not be math majors but must be math adepts. 2) Students should be advanced through classes at the level they are, not the age they are.

February 14, 2011 at 6:40 a.m.
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