Four years ago Louisiana began to require every graduating senior to take the ACT. Since that time, ACT scores in New Orleans improved steadily each year—narrowing the gap with the state average—until this year when scores remained flat.

Test scores are not the only indicator of a healthy school system, but they are important. And given a similar stagnation on this year’s 2016 high school end-of-course exams, it is worth assessing how we can get back to the year-over-year academic progress that has defined the last five years in New Orleans.

ACT scores are at an all-time high…but far from excellent

New Orleans average ACT score of 18.8 is still an all-time high for the city and is higher than many urban school districts (Denver 18.3, Chicago 18.2, Charlotte 18.6).  But a student with an average New Orleans ACT score wouldn’t qualify for an in-state TOPS scholarship to a 4- year university (requires a score of 20), nor would he or she have met the College Board’s standard for “college readiness,” a score of between 22 and 23 (corresponds with a roughly 50% chance of getting a “B” in similar college level courses).

Why we think doing well on the ACT is important

You’re more likely to have a higher income and be satisfied with your job if you go to college. A recent study from Georgetown concluded that out of the 11.6 million jobs created since the Great Recession, 11.5 million went to those who had at least some college education—99%.

Louisiana’s TOPS scholarship program, based on ACT and GPA performance, has provided many New Orleans students with an important funding source that helped them access college.

These funds, however, have increasingly gone to students from families with higher-incomes. Research from the Cowen Institute has shown that “the number of recipients from families making $150,000 or more nearly doubled from 2005 to 2014.”

Doing well on the ACT makes college more affordable. Going to college increases the likelihood of getting a good, satisfying job. But low-income students, who are often behind academically and lack the resources to access the booming ACT test prep industry their high-income peers participate in, remain at a distinct disadvantage.

Leveling the playing field

This year, as part of our school support work, we launched a new pilot program—ACT 23 Fellows—to address the urgent need to improve ACT scores and better prepare students for college level courses.

This initiative will be based on an ACT-aligned pacing and interim assessment model implemented at the high-performing Chicago-based Noble Network of Charter Schools. Noble students who participated in the most recent cohort improved over 6 points on the ACT from their freshmen to their junior year.

This pilot will adapt the Noble model to fit the New Orleans landscape, and will provide Noble-created interim assessments, data analysis training, and implementation support to 3 partner schools. By emphasizing ACT preparation in 9th and 10th grade, rather than solely junior year, we believe this pilot will result in significant ACT gains at each school in the 17-18 and 18-19 school years—and provide more schools with an additional tool to help students get into and succeed in college.

What would it mean to New Orleans?

The average score on the ACT in the US is a 21. To reach that threshold, New Orleans will need to double the ACT performance growth of the last decade.

We hope that the lessons we learn from the ACT 23 Fellows pilot will be scalable across more schools in New Orleans.

Ultimately, we hope this program has a significant impact on our city’s students. We believe it has a real opportunity to increase the number of New Orleans graduates prepared to succeed in college while decreasing the financial burden required to access higher education opportunities.

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