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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