All Hands on Deck: Preparing Students for ACT Success

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All Hands on Deck: Preparing All Students for ACT Success at Jefferson County High School

by Jesse Tow, program manager for blended learning at the Tennessee Department of Education. He has enjoyed listening and learning from teachers, and supporting the Algebra I/Integrated Math I Blended Learning Pilot.


The ACT is everywhere at Jefferson County High School (JCHS), from bulletin boards and video monitors, to the media center, agricultural science classroom, and even the parking lot. Principal Scott Walker and his faculty have instilled a culture of high expectations and postsecondary attainment that extends beyond the campus and into the community, and JCHS has the results to show for their efforts. ACT scores have risen significantly since Walker’s arrival, with the average composite up from 18.4 for the class of 2011 to 19.4 for the class of 2016. The class of 2017 looks to keep this trend going; they reached a 19.7 average as juniors and all 507 seniors have signed up for the free retake on Saturday, Oct. 22. We’d like to share three aspects of JCHS’ ACT culture that schools and districts can put into practice: mobilizing the entire school, real-world messaging, and celebrating all achievement.

Mobilizing the entire school

“We believe school goals shouldn’t focus on English, math, science, or social studies, but something every class can emphasize. We owe it to our students to teach the ACT across all areas because the test can provide them with so many opportunities, therefore we make it a school-wide effort and give every teacher a part to play.”

Dr. Scott Walker, Principal

Goals matter at JCHS for teachers and students alike. Principal Walker stresses that JCHS’ school improvement goals—improve the junior class’ ACT composite score to 21, increase graduation rate to 96 percent, and increase the mean TEAM evaluation score for Standards and Objectives to 3.9— require buy-in from the entire school. As such, they’re present and visible across campus and online.

ACT standards visible in a biology classroom

ACT standards visible in a biology classroom

With the ACT improvement goal established, JCHS faculty has mobilized to bring ACT content into every classroom, an initiative largely lead by science teacher Emily Schultz. Principal Walker recruited teachers from a range of subjects— including career and technical education— to form an ACT action committee. Curriculum leads in every subject put their course standards and objectives into “I can” statements, then met with the ACT committee to align those statements with ACT content standards. Walk into any classroom at JCHS, and you’re likely to find bright orange ACT stickers next to daily objectives that will help students on test day.

The ACT committee ensures all students can find help by coordinating morning and afternoon tutorials for students so that duties can be spread out among teachers. This mobilization extends to test day; even though JCHS is not an ACT testing site, the school musters an “all hands on deck” approach, arranging carpools to ensure every student arrives on time at the right location, where they will find teachers ready to help them with any issues that may arise during check-in.

Student-Centered Messaging

“Students should not give up on the right to be employed.”

Connie Janes, English teacher and ACT Prep coordinator

ACT culture at JCHS is only part of the larger message for students, which emphasizes how postsecondary attainment—whether four-year, two-year, or an industry certification— gives students greater agency over their future. This messaging begins early on, when freshmen map out and budget for the lifestyle they hope to live as adults. This gives students not previously interested in school a reality check about how postsecondary opportunities can help them thrive.

Juniors at JCHS frame their ACT prep course by reading the Tennessee Workforce Disruption Index from the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development that illustrates how advanced technology is expected to automate a number of jobs in the coming years. Lower skill jobs are projected to be removed and replaced by jobs requiring a degree, certification, or credential. Connie Janes, one of the ACT prep instructors, emphasizes to her students that they should use this report as motivation to sharpen the skills that will allow them to attain postsecondary credentials.

 actCelebrating All Achievement

With these high expectations, JCHS takes every opportunity to celebrate student accomplishment on the ACT. Here is just a sampling of the many incentives they offer:

  • Students who attend tutoring can enter a monthly drawing to win a reserved, customized “ACT Student of the Month” parking spot, painted with the ACT logo.
  • Students who purchase test information reports and consult with an ACT coordinator will receive a free T-shirt, designed by JCHS’ graphic arts students.
  • Seniors who improve their ACT composite by 3 points or score above 30 receive a free prom ticket. The student with the most improved score receives an additional prom ticket and a $100 gas card.
  • Seniors who score above college readiness benchmarks on all subjects, as well as juniors who score above a 21 and qualify for the HOPE lottery scholarship, receive a fancy luncheon in the cafeteria, where administrators and counselors wait on them in full view of other students.

Develop Your Own Retake ACTion Plan

Although the ACT culture at JCHS is the product of thoughtful leadership and planning, schools and districts can conduct their own “all hands on deck” effort to ensure students make the best of the retake coming up on Saturday, Oct. 22. Here are three simple strategies to try out:

  • Pair up students with an accountability buddy to make sure every test taker has transportation to the testing site and a backup plan.
  • Have students print extra admission tickets and turn them in to a designated test day coordinator.
  • On test day, have teachers, administrators, or volunteers present on-site with extra admission tickets, snacks, and copies of student test tips to provide just-in-time support.