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High Schools: Low ACT scores, lower participation rates, but test becoming more popular

ESCONDIDO — The American College Testing, better known as the ACT, is a topic of great consternation for high school students nationwide.

Do well on the test and have a decent grade point average and you’re off to a decent college. Do poorly — or worse, don’t take it at all — and your higher education options become much more limited.

In the Escondido Union High School District, students have obtained mixed results on the ACT, according to numbers recently crunched and published by the San Diego-based investigative news outlet inewsource. While some of the district’s schools have performed better than others on the test, all of them had low participation rates for the ACT.

There is an important caveat, however: the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT), and not the ACT, has historically reigned supreme as the exam taken by California high school students and sat as the one accepted by state-funded colleges and universities. Across the board, principals from multiple district schools — from schools such as Escondido High School, Escondido Charter High School, San Pasqual High School and elsewhere — told The Coast News that they focus on training their students to excel in the SAT. Providing preparation opportunities for the ACT, meanwhile, is a slow but steadily emerging trend.

“As we believe in many options and opportunities for students (a tagline for our district is ‘The Choice is Yours’), we also provide for the ACT for students who may be interested and/or believe they may perform better on that exam,” April Moore, assistant superintendent of education services for the district, told The Coast News via email. “The questions … raised (pertaining to the new ACT scores data) are among the questions we review and consider as we monitor our students’ preparation for college and career.”

For its data collection, inewsource collected ACT scores for the years 2011 through 2017, as well as SAT scores for the 2016-2017 school year. The news outlet calculated both test scores that were above the national average, a score of 21 out of a possible 36, as well as the percentage of students who actually sat and took the exam.

The school in the district with the highest test scores was Escondido’s Classical Academy High School, which had 85 percent of students who took the exam score above the national average for five out of six years. The Classical Academy, a charter school that is part of a northern San Diego County-wide network of schools — with the Escondido version of it sitting within the city’s downtown core — had over 95 percent of its students who took the ACT exam in 2014-2015 score above 21.

The Classical Academy charter school  in Escondido had over 95 percent of its students who took the ACT exam in 2014-2015 score above 21. Photo via Facebook

There is a twist to Classical Academy’s story, albeit, and that comes in the form of the number of students who actually sat and took the ACT.

According to inewsource, only 68 students took the exam for the 2014-2015 school year, while only 77 took it for the 2016-2017 rendition. According to the California Department of Education, the Classical Academy has an enrollment of nearly 1,200 students. Put another way, only 6 to 7 percent of its students enrolled in the school took the exam in those two given school years, and those were the highest participation rates in the six years calculated by inewsource.

For the SAT, Classical Academy fared much better, with 156 students taking the exam and over 83 percent scoring above the national average. Karen Withem, a college counselor at the Classical Academy, pointed to the history of the SATs’ legacy as a major part of the rationale behind this trend line.

“The ACT was originally a college entrance test that east coast high school students took for college admissions in that part of the country. This was because the ACT was the entrance exam that many of the east coast colleges would require,” explained Withem. “West coast colleges tended to prefer to see SAT scores. Through the years this has changed as more and more colleges all across the country started accepting either the SAT or ACT for college acceptance.”

Withem further explained that the Classical Academy has encouraged students over the past three years to double up and take both the the ACT and the SAT.

“Our students who are strong in math and science score well on the ACT and these students like the fact that there are no additional subject tests required,” said Withem. “Though we still see more than double the amount of students take the SAT over the ACT, we expect the number of students who take the ACT to continue to grow as it has for the past six years.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the school with the lowest ACT and SAT scores was Orange Glen High School, which sits within Escondido’s east valley area. Orange Glen had a peak of 39-percent of its students score above 21 on the ACT during the 2011-2012 school year, while routinely scoring in the lower end of the 30th percentile for the bulk of the other years.

A similar percent was achieved during the 2016-2017 school year for Orange Glen as it pertains to the SAT, with 32-percent of its students scoring above the national average for that exam. Participation rates were also low for both exams for Orange Glen. A high school with an enrollment of over 1,500 students, only 190 of them took the SAT during the 2016-2017 school year, while 133 took the ACT during that same year.

“Our team of five counselors provides extensive guidance for our students regarding the SAT and ACT. In the Escondido Union High School District, the PSAT and SAT are the focus exams for students in grades in grades 10-12,” Principal Stacey Adame of Orange Glen High School told The Coast News. “Orange Glen High School follows this choice of exams to align with our Local Control and Accountability Plan goals and based on input from our families. We do provide the ACT as an option for students who need or desire additional options to meet their college entrance requirements. We are reviewing the questions and data provided as we explore additional supports for students who choose to take the ACT.”

Assistant Superintendent Moore also told The Coast News that the district’s postsecondary education preparation priorities go above and beyond bettering ACT and SAT scores.

“College and career readiness is a high priority for our district, and we have been pleased to see the steady increase in students graduating prepared for both college and career after high school,” Moore explained. “A key indicator we use to gauge student readiness is the California School Dashboard, which shows the various pathways students may complete to show they are prepared—from test scores, to college preparatory course sequences, to completion of Career Technical Education pathways.”