by Jerre Maynor, Director of Student Readiness at the Tennessee Department of Education
Keep your options open. That’s the fundamental message that Marshall County Principal John Bush finds himself constantly communicating when he speaks to students about the ACT, TN Promise, and future career opportunities. Over the past three years, Principal Bush and the staff at Marshall County High have built an intentional focus on preparing all students for the ACT.
“It’s not college or career readiness, it’s college and career readiness,” Bush says. “You want to go to a technical school? Great! Community college? Great! 4-year college? Great! We can help them be ready to do any of the three.”
Not only is Marshall County High preparing students in a comprehensive way for the exam, they are constantly seeking new ways to motivate students to prepare for the ACT and celebrate their achievements. Every student has the opportunity to be publicly celebrated for ACT performance or improvement. Publicly celebrating growth (increases in composite score), meeting thresholds like a 21 composite (the minimum score to become eligible for the HOPE Scholarship), and the highest scores in the class (“Wall of Fame”) has the dual impact of recognizing all levels of achievement and signaling to everyone that the ACT is an important part of the school’s culture.
In the interview below, Principal Bush details how Marshall County High School is building a culture of readiness for life after high school by emphasizing the importance of the ACT.
Q: How are you embedding strong preparation for the ACT into your daily instruction and curriculum?
A: First, our math, English, and science teachers have reviewed the ACT standards and the Tennessee state standards so that all teachers can better ensure mastery of both for their students. This process has greatly improved teacher understanding and ownership of the ACT standards.
For math support, any student who wants to come work on ACT math during the school’s RTI2 time is welcome to come and get extra practice and support. For science, our biology teachers integrate ACT practice into their regular curriculum and they don’t talk about “if” you take the ACT, only “when.” They set the expectation by modeling. In the social sciences, Advanced Placement prompts are used to increase the rigor of reading and critical thinking for free response questions. They make the connections explicit in class and in practice.
You know, it’s really pretty simple. We tell everyone the ACT is not separate from everything else we do. We are all doing this, we are all going to do well, and here’s what we are going to do to ensure that our students do well.
Q: How do you help students prepare for the test day?
A: There are several different ways we are ensuring that students are familiar and comfortable with the test itself before their junior year. On the statewide ACT test date for juniors, all freshmen & sophomores take a practice ACT as if it were the real test. Then, an ACT Prep course is available to all juniors and is taught by some of the school’s most effective teachers.
The freshman and sophomore tests are used to help identify specific learning goals and areas for targeted remediation. We conduct an analysis which is used to assign students to ACT prep based upon their areas of need. Hence, students receive specific instruction for their deficiencies rather than a broad plan of study. All students with scores below 21 are required to attend ACT prep courses.
Q: How are you supporting a culture of strong academic achievement and preparation at your school?
A: Marshall County encourages and recognizes academic achievement with reward cards. Students scoring in the 65th percentile or higher on their state tests are required to enroll in honors level courses in English, math, science, and history. All students have access to Advanced Placement courses. There is no gatekeeping strategy that prevents students from enrolling – we don’t want to discourage any students from being exposed to rigorous coursework. Through professional learning communities, teachers have defined essential standards and provide timely remediation for students who do not master those standards. Planned and structured meeting protocols have been established to promote collaboration, the use of common formative assessments, and the creation of remediation and enrichment strategies for all students.
Q: How do you convince students who aren’t sure of their postsecondary plans that the ACT is important?
Many kids take the ACT and do better than they thought they would. That becomes a strong sales-pitch for thinking about their postsecondary opportunities. Our counselors are great about having these conversations and I am going to start having more one-on-one conversations with my kids
Some students have a career track in mind and don’t realize that they need an ACT score for that program. The assistant director of the Tennessee College of Applied Technology in Pulaski shared that many students interested in the nursing program did not realize that they need their ACT score to enroll.
Q: What recommendations would you give to other principals and educators looking to improve their school’s culture and preparation for the ACT?
A: We are all in this together. The best ideas that we have had were taken from somebody else. The only way to get better is to keep sharing with each other what we are doing. For instance, for next year I am going to steal a great idea from Forrest High School principal Davy McClaran. For students who score between 16-20 on the ACT, he personally facilitates remediation to help those students get closer to the thresholds for avoiding remedial coursework in college and for qualifying for HOPE. When the principal gets involved like that, kids really notice.