ACT results: Cause for celebration — but look below the surface

Last week brought the welcome news that Minnesota students ranked first in the nation in average ACT scores. This is worth celebrating. But we shouldn’t let our pride blind us to the troubling data hidden below the surface of our ACT averages. It may look like we’re sailing at the front of the pack, but the winds are shifting and our boat is leaking.

In today’s global economy, Minnesota students aren’t just competing with their American peers, they’re competing with students from around the world. According to a Harvard study that compared high school students internationally, Minnesota students ranked only 18th in math and 19th in reading. In our mobile economy, jobs and capital are attracted to regions of the planet with competitive tax systems and well-educated workers. Minnesota is already uncompetitive from a tax standpoint – we can’t afford to lag behind on education too.

If looking only at state ACT averages, one might conclude that Minnesota has little room for improvement, but our high average masks other troubling data. Most concerning is that only 17 percent of African-American students and just 30 percent of Hispanic students met three of the ACT’s four college readiness benchmarks in reading, writing, math, and science. This compares to 62 percent of white students. Minnesota’s achievement gap is well-documented and it has been the focus of numerous organizations for many years; sadly, little progress has been made and the situation grows more urgent every year. Non-white students are the fastest growing segment of the state’s population, so unless we help those students dramatically improve, our ACT ranking is certain to plummet.

Our average ACT performance also hides the fact that three out of every five students failed to meet all four of the ACT’s readiness benchmarks. This squares with other studies showing that a large percentage of college students in Minnesota need remedial coursework. This is unacceptable. When our K-12 system sends unprepared students to college campuses, they’re far less likely to earn a degree and the remedial costs are borne by the students, their families, and taxpayers.

Unfortunately, this problem is likely to get worse due to recent policy changes. In 2013 the state eliminated GRAD exams, on which high school students had to earn minimum scores in reading, writing, and math in order to graduate. The GRAD exams were aligned with state academic standards, so they accurately reflected what students are supposed to learn in core areas. In their place, the Legislature and Governor decided that all students should take the ACT, but without any minimum required scores and no consequences for failure.

The lack of accountability is concerning, but what’s even more alarming is that the Minnesota Department of Education recently determined that the ACT isn’t sufficiently aligned with state standards, so students in grades 8, 10, and 11 will now take both the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments and the ACT and related exams. The business community is often bashed for thinking that education testing is a panacea. First, this is untrue. And secondly, Minnesota’s new double-testing scheme produces exactly what we don’t want to see:  inefficiency and a lack of accountability. Losing classroom instruction time for a test that isn’t aligned to Minnesota’s academic standards is inefficient and harmful to students. And when there are no performance targets that must be met, students have little incentive to take learning or testing seriously.

In Minnesota we’re justifiably proud of our historically strong education system. But if we want to continue competing for world-class jobs that improve our quality of life, we can’t ignore that we’re falling behind our international peers or that our K-12 system is leaving behind a significant number of students—particularly students of color—and graduating too few who are prepared for college.

This commentary originally appeared in the August 31st edition of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.