National Curriculum Survey Calibrates ACT's Assessment Tools
Every three to five years, ACT conducts the ACT National Curriculum Survey® to ensure its curriculum-based assessment tools accurately measure the skills high school teachers teach and instructors of entry-level college courses expect. The results of the survey conducted in 2003 are both reassuring and unsettling.
Data from the 2003 survey confirm that ACT assessments test the skills American teachers are teaching. Results also indicate that high school teachers and college instructors, for the most part, agree on the skills that are most important. Thats the reassuring part.
What is unsettling is that some of the survey resultsin the reading areaindicate those vital skills are taught mostly to students already considered to be college bound.
These results are troubling, particularly since we dont really know what criteria teachers are using to label students as non-college bound, said Cynthia Schmeiser, ACTs senior vice president of research and development.
The fact is that more students than ever before are likely to enroll in some form of postsecondary education, whether they anticipate going to college or not. A number of factors influence this trend: All of the U.S. Department of Labor job categories for which faster-than-average growth is projected require at least a postsecondary vocational or academic certificate, and many require two- to four-year college degrees.
College enrollments, which have been swelling since 1995, are expected to continue to rise for at least the next 10 years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
In times of stagnant job growth, many job seekers enter higher education programs to augment and improve their skills.
Even jobs that call for little or no postsecondary education often require strong reading, writing, and computer skills. Data gathered by ACTs WorkKeys® program indicate that 80 percent of jobs that pay more than minimum wage but dont demand a four-year degree require reading skills comparable to those of average college freshmen. Unemployment rates have hovered around 6 percent for more than a year. An applicant with minimal skills cant compete with the many experienced workers also in the job market.
These days, almost everybody needs some college education, or needs skills equivalent to the college-ready standard. Not teaching all students the skills they need to be ready for college is really doing them a disservice, said Richard L. Ferguson, ACTs chief executive officer.
Many educators agree.
In a standards-based systemwhich is what 49 states have committed tothere should be no differences between college bound and non-college bound, said Carol Jago, an English teacher and co-director of UCLAs California Reading and Literature Project.
The ACT National Curriculum Survey helps keep ACTs curriculum-based assessments aligned with various state standards. To that end, ACT queries thousands of entry-level college course instructors, high school teachers, high school department heads, and middle school teachers. Surveys are conducted in four areas: English, math, reading, and science. The results help guide the development of ACTs EPAS/Educational Planning and Assessment System® programs, which include EXPLORE® for eighth and ninth graders, PLAN® for tenth graders, and the ACT Assessment® for eleventh and twelfth graders.
The survey of important English skills revealed the largest discrepancy between high school and college educators. Although both groups largely agree on the most important skills, they disagree in one key area: grammar and usage skills.
College teachers consider grammar and usage skills to be the most important English skills for incoming students, while high school teachers consider them least important. As might be expected, fewer high school teachers said they teach those skills than the other five skills ratedsentence structure, writing strategy, organization, punctuation, and style.
In math, the survey asked educators to rate the importance of twenty process skills and a variety of content skills.
Among the process skills, high school and college respondents chose the same ten skills as most important, although they ranked them differently.
The high school and college groups rated the content skills differently, with high school teachers generally rating topics as significantly more important than college instructors rated them. ACT researchers attributed the differences to the focus of each group. High school teachers aim to prepare students for many different college courses. They are asked which skills are important in college in general. College instructors, on the other hand, are asked to rate importance in terms of a specific course that they teach.
A comparison of the 2003 survey results to those of the previous survey, in 1998, revealed a slight increase in the importance high school teachers assign to skills in probability, statistics, and data analysis.
The survey of reading skills revealed that most of the reading skills ranked are taught more frequently in classrooms where teachers think most of the students intend to go to college. Forty-nine of the 64 reading skills in the survey were taught more often by the 220 respondents teaching students they consider to be college-bound than by the 76 who said they teach non-college bound high schoolers. The skills most often taught primarily to college bound students are:
By contrast, some skills were taught more often in classrooms where teachers think most of the students do not intend to go to college. For example, 61 percent of teachers of such students cover interpreting information from graphs, charts, and diagrams. Only 27 percent of the teachers who gear their classrooms to college-bound students emphasize the same skill.
The reading survey also revealed that educators at both levels agreed, for the most part, on the important skills. Four of the six most highly rated skills for both groups were the same:
They also agreed on the least-important skills, most of which fell into the evaluating and judging skills categories. Although the teachers ranked these critical reading skills below more functional skills, they deemed all of the skills in the survey important.
In science, the survey asked respondents to rate the importance of fifteen process skills and, again, a variety of content skills. Four of the fifteen science skills were ranked in the top six by all of the four survey groups. They were:
These four process skills are the basic skills assessed on the Science Test sections in EXPLORE, PLAN, and the ACT Assessment.
In content knowledge, high school teachers and college instructors ranked skills almost identically; that is, nine of the top ten biology content topics were the same for both groups, as were eight of the top ten chemistry topics, seven of the top ten Earth science topics, and eight of the top ten physics topics.
Overall, respondents indicated that science skills are more important than content knowledge, which is consistent with the emphasis of the EXPLORE, PLAN, and ACT Assessment tests.
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