Gov. Rick Snyder has made a blunt claim about Michigan's schools in 2011: Few of their graduates are actually ready for college work.
This spring, Snyder said only 16 percent of the state’s 2010 high school graduates were college ready and that 238 schools had zero -- 0 -- college-ready students based on ACT benchmarks.
The governor called the statistics “truly scary” and said the state isn’t receiving the appropriate return on its investment in the education system.
Critics say Snyder's use of the figure is "misleading." A review by the Center for Michigan found that Snyder's use of the 16 percent figure is technically accurate. However, the debate is far from resolved over whether the ACT figures fairly reflect the college 'readiness' of high-schoolers.
In response to the problems he sees, Snyder wants to lift the state's cap on charter schools, expand school of choice for students, adopt “performance-based” teaching standards and overhaul teacher tenure law.
But educators such as Judy Pritchett, the chief academic officer of the Macomb Intermediate School District, argue that leaning too heavily on ACT scores as a predictor of college readiness — or as the basis for overhauling K-12 education policy — is an unfair and unwise approach.
Pritchett agrees reforms are needed. But the ACT’s benchmarks are flawed measures that paint an incomplete and misleading portrait of how successfully Michigan schools are preparing students for college and post-secondary careers, she said.
“Human beings are extremely complex organisms,” said Pritchett, whose intermediate district encompasses 21 school districts. “To say we’re failing or not based on one index is not fair and not what we should be doing as we make major decisions on reforms.
“These numbers are not a good basis for making education reform. We’re the first to say that we’re not into the status quo and we need to make some changes. But this one is so flawed because it’s a limited study and to use just one assessment when making decisions with these ramifications is just not a good approach," she added.
The standard Snyder has used is based on the performance of Michigan’s high school juniors on the ACT’s college readiness benchmarks in the four areas of the test: English, reading, math and science.
ACT sets minimum subject test scores —18 in English; 21 in reading; 22 in math; and 24 in science (out of a possible 36) — for students to have a “high probability” of success in credit-bearing college classes in those respective areas. According to ACT, students who meet a benchmark have approximately a 50 percent chance of earning a ‘B’ or better and approximately a 75 percent chance of earning a ‘C’ or better in corresponding college courses.
For example, if a student meets the benchmark in math, he or she is thought to have a 75 percent chance of earning a ‘C’ or better in college algebra. English composition, biology and social sciences are the other corresponding courses.
All Michigan juniors are required to take the ACT as part of the Michigan Merit Exam. Of those who graduated in 2011, only 16 percent met the college readiness benchmarks in all four subject test areas when taking the test in 2010 -- the figure Snyder and others in Lansing have used.
Pritchett and other educators representing the Macomb and Oakland intermediate school districts recently distributed a document detailing why they see that measurement as misleading. Among the points they raised:
According to ACT, the benchmarks were created using data from nearly 100 institutions and more than 90,000 college students. That study is too limited to establish the standards, making the benchmarks arbitrary, Pritchett said.
Michigan is one of only a handful of states that require all students to take the ACT as juniors, regardless of whether they aspire to attend college. That skews comparisons to the scores of other states and national averages, she said.
Missing just one of the four benchmarks classifies a student as not college ready. “We all have strengths and challenges,” Pritchett said. “I was good in reading and English, but struggled in math and probably wouldn’t have done well on that subtest. We can find thousands of students who fall into that category -- who may not do well in one subject test but will excel in college. Conversely, you may have students who test well but for whatever reason -- no motivation, no organization -- get to college where there’s more freedom and suddenly are not successful.”
Of the 238 schools Snyder pointed to as having zero college-ready students, a majority were alternative education schools or dropout recovery programs, Pritchett said.
What’s more, ACT adjusts a state’s scores when students retake the test, which some do as seniors. In fact, when Michigan’s scores for the class of 2011 were adjusted, the percentage of students meeting all four college readiness benchmarks rose from 16 percent to 20 percent. The national average for 2011 graduates was about 25 percent.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mike Flanagan said the ACT benchmarks are a fair measure because universities use the test scores as part of their entrance requirements.
“I’m a little taken aback by those who are defensive about this because the universities think (the ACT) has some merit,” he said.
Flanagan acknowledges many schools may have students who perform well, but miss the benchmark in one of the four areas and therefore are not deemed “college ready.” Instead of arguing over the statistics, those districts should concentrate on boosting performance in subject areas where the most students seem to be missing the benchmark, he argued.
“If I were a local superintendent and I saw we were down in a specific subject area that’s where I’d focus,” he said.
In June, ACT data was released for the class of 2012 and the percentage of juniors meeting all four college readiness benchmarks increased to 17 percent (up from the 16 percent of the 2011 class before it was adjusted for retakes). The percentage of students meeting benchmarks increased in all four individual subject areas. Meanwhile, the average composite score (the average of the four subject tests) for the class of 2012 was 19.3, up from 18.7 in 2008.
“The steady progress is promising, but we can and must do better,” said Snyder, who signed a controversial 2012 state budget that cut state aid to schools by $300 per pupil. “I am confident that with our rigorous high school requirements, high-quality teachers and the enactment and implementation of key education reforms, this positive trend will continue."
MSU prof: U.S. students falling behind
While he has reservations about using the ACT benchmarks as a measure for college readiness, Michigan State University professor William Schmidt said Snyder is generally right to be concerned that students in Michigan -- and across the country -- are falling behind their peers around the globe.
“We are in a startlingly bad position compared to the rest of the world,” said Schmidt, a university distinguished professor of statistics who was instrumental in developing the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). “Our kids are way behind. It’s reality. You can’t just push it aside and try to excuse it. A debate over the tests misses the point.”
Launched in 1995 and conducted about every four years, TIMSS has generally shown American students lagging behind countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands, Japan, Korea, Singapore and Taiwan, Schmidt said.
The problem, Schmidt contends, is that America hasn’t set high enough standards, especially in math, where students generally begin to fall behind in middle school.
Schmidt helped benchmark the new Common Core Standards that Michigan adopted in 2010 and plans to begin assessing in 2014. The new K-12 standards -- which cover math and English language arts -- are focused, coherent and demanding and will help prepare Michigan students to compete globally for jobs, Schmidt said.
“The ‘college ready’ thing is a nice catchphrase, but the more fundamental issue is the way our system is set up and the fact that, by international benchmarks, our standards are not particularly focused, adequate or competitive,” Schmidt said. “We’re preparing our kids for lesser roles in the world. We’re not going to be a leading technological and innovative country if we continue to educate at that level.”
ACT scores are an important gauge of academic preparation and open doors to college and scholarships, but there’s much more to helping students become ready for post-secondary success, said Doug Ross, president and founder of the University Prep Schools, a system of seven charter schools in the Detroit area.
“Using ACT as a measure of kids’ academic preparation is appropriate,” said Ross, who in July also was tapped to direct the Detroit Public Schools Charter School Office. “But that’s so far away from, ‘can you stick to it and succeed?’ The difference between 20 and 23 on the ACT is not going to predict how you do compared to social skill factors and other character issues.”
Though members of the first graduating class at Ross’ University Preparatory Academy had average ACT scores well below the college readiness benchmarks, roughly 80 percent of those students went on to earn college degrees.
Ross’ schools, which have a goal of graduating 90 percent of students and sending 90 percent of those students on to college, focus heavily on helping students develop intangible skills such as time management, goal setting, responsibility and work ethic. Students complete internships to explore potential careers and have daily advisory periods
“It’s a set of skills we call ‘habits of mind,’ ” said Margaret Trimmer-Hartley, superintendent of University Prep Science and Math Schools, a middle school and high school in the University prep system. “We begin in middle school and teach them very intentionally so kids can develop that side of themselves. We’re focused on charging up kids’ batteries and getting them to believe they can play in the college game.”
Editor's note: Doug Ross is a member of the Center for Michigan's Steering Committee. Margaret Trimer-Hartley is a member of the Board of Advisers for the Center's new online magazine, Bridge, which launches Sept. 6.