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Interpreting the ACT


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A few weeks ago, South Dakota received its average ACT scores for the 2011-2012 school year.

The ACT is a college entrance exam taken traditionally by 10th, 11th, or 12th graders. It measures students in four areas: mathematics, science and reasoning, English, and reading comprehension. In each of the four subject areas, South Dakota students outpaced the national average, just as we have for each of the past five years.

A few things should be noted about comparing South Dakota's ACT scores to others nationally. First, not all students take the ACT. The proportion of students in each state who take the test varies widely, from as few as 9 percent of graduates in Maine to 100 percent in several states.

That leads to some apples-to-oranges comparisons among states. For example, the 9 percent in Maine are likely top students who are planning to attend out-of-state colleges. That would drive Maine's average ACT score higher. Conversely, states with 100 percent participation in the ACT could expect their scores to be true average scores of all graduates. In South Dakota, 81 percent of our high school graduates take the ACT -- the fourth-highest among states that do not require the test.

A second note should be made that the "science and reasoning' test does not test knowledge of biology, chemistry, physics, or any other natural science. Instead, it tests students' abilities to read charts and graphs, and to use reasoning in solving problems.

The best, most valid information that the ACT gives a state like South Dakota is a comparison to itself, historically. It is a valuable thing in policymaking to be able to see the gains, losses, or stagnations in outcomes over time.

The ACT assessment has tested the same content since 1986, giving South Dakota a reliable, consistent tool to measure our progress and keep us accountable over the years. It may not be the perfect test, but it is accepted as valid by higher education institutions to gauge college admission and is therefore a valuable measure for students as well.

In 1986, South Dakota's composite ACT score was 21.7, and it has remained remarkably flat since then. It dipped as low as 21 and edged up as high as 22, but has not shown steady gains or losses over the past 26 years.

This year, South Dakota's average composite score is 21.8, exactly the same as the past three years. In other words, the knowledge and achievement of our students is still good, but it is not improving in the short or longer terms. The national average composite score is 21.1.

We must always look for ways to improve outcomes in education, ways to improve student achievement.

I expect every department of state government to be accountable for the money it spends, so we know that taxpayer dollars are being spent in a way that benefits the people of South Dakota.

We should always continue to strive for greater achievement in education. We have a good benchmark and a good historical reference, now we must find the means to improve.

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