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Pennsylvnia teens score in top 10 for ACT exam

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Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013, 9:38 p.m.
 

Only 18 percent of Pennsylvania high school students took the ACT exam — billed as a reliable predictor of student success — but they scored in the top 10 of average composite scores and beat national averages.

In an annual report, released this week, ACT officials said most test takers nationwide are ill-prepared for first-year college courses. Educators in the region disagree.

Patrick O'Toole, superintendent of Upper St. Clair School District, said standardized tests shouldn't be the sole barometer by which students are assessed.

“The ACT is an indicator, that's all,” he said. “Sure, we can talk about trend data but that's just one piece of information.”

In Pennsylvania, the average composite score was 22.7 out of a possible 36, 10th in the nation and tied with Rhode Island. None of the nine states that require students to take the exam reach the top 10.

Test designers say the percentage of students achieving benchmark scores — an 18 in English, 22 in reading, 22 in math and 23 in science — is the more useful statistic. That's because the benchmarks are intended to correspond to a 50 percent chance of a student earning at least a B and a 75 percent chance of earning at least a C in first-year college courses.

About 77 percent of Pennsylvania teens met the mark for English, 57 percent in reading, 61 percent in math and 47 percent in science.

Superintendent Timothy Steinhauer of Mt. Lebanon School District said he has a son researching regional universities.

“He's into architecture and engineering, and every school he looks at wants something a little different,” Steinhauer said. “Volunteering, rigor of curriculum, extracurriculars, athletics — they look at it all. That's why we maintain books our students can reference to get an idea how they will do at each school.”

The books contain info about academic performance in college of Mt. Lebanon graduates and their college and university selections. Mt. Lebanon guidance counselors use them to give personalized, comparative predictions to high school students, he said.

“Getting accepted and staying in college is dependent on so many factors aside from your strengths academically,” he said.

Paul-James Cukanna, associate provost for enrollment management at Duquesne University, said standardized exams are a factor in admission, but his office examines the breadth and rigor of the high school's academic curriculum much more closely.

“If a student is interested in a health profession, have they had any experiential shadowing? What grades did they maintain over time? It's all important,” he said.

At Duquesne, Cukanna said about 65 percent of applicants submit an SAT score. Thirty-five percent submit an ACT score.

From 2009 to 2013, the number of ACT test-taking graduates increased by 23.5 percent, while the number of Pennsylvania graduates decreased 3.8 percent.

“What looks different about the ACT report is their methodology,” Cukanna said. “We know nationally that at least one-third of freshmen don't return for a second year. Only about 40 percent graduate in four years. This asks educators to get kids ready starting in kindergarten.”

Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5815 or mharris@tribweb.com.

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