All across Illinois today, tens of thousands of high school juniors are taking the ACT as part of statewide testing. Since the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 2001 (ESEA, also known as No Child Left Behind), the message we most often hear about our schools is that they are failing. However, a recent study by Dr. Steve Cordogan of Aurora University shows that while Illinois schools still have plenty of room for improvement, the ACT scores of Illinois juniors clearly illustrate how well those schools have improved.
The ACT composite score is a useful measure of aggregate student performance. The ACT has a decades-long record of reliability and validity. It is taken seriously by students, since college admissions and scholarship opportunities use the score to some degree, providing a strong motivation to perform. Finally, while the ACT is taken by high school students, it reflects the results of each child’s teachers from kindergarten onward in preparing them for high school.
Illinois instituted universal ACT testing for the Class of 2002, increasing the participation of Illinois students from 71 percent to 99 percent of all Illinois students. Not surprisingly, that shift resulted in a drop in the ACT composite score for the state as the students taking the ACT went from only college-bound students to every student. However, since the start of universal ACT testing, student performance in Illinois has continued to improve to the point where the Illinois composite score for all students now exceeds the national composite score made up almost exclusively of college-bound students (approximately 54 percent of high school graduates).
The performance of Illinois students on the ACT is even more impressive when considering demographic issues. One of the most predictive indicators of student performance is socio-economic status. Yet, while the percentage of Illinois students receiving free or reduced lunch increased from 37.5 percent in 2002 to 51.5 percent in 2014, ACT scores increased.
In addition, Illinois began testing English Language Learner (ELL) students with the ACT in 2008 (Class of 2009), another population that generally performs lower on the ACT. While some of these students receive accommodations and are not included in the ACT composite score, many do not and are counted. The influx of these students did not produce a decline in scores, and in fact, the composite score continued to increase.
The ACT provides a good measure of how Illinois schools are preparing our students for success after graduation from high school, whether in college or a career. At a time when demographic changes would have predicted a decrease in scores and state support has continued to erode, Illinois students have shown a significant and continual improvement in performance to the point where the composite score of all Illinois students surpasses that of the college-bound-only national averages for the past two years. The improvement in ACT scores are a clear indicator of the hard work by Illinois students, teachers, and administrators.