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The ACT as a Gateway to Postsecondary Opportunity For Low-Income Students

by Amanda Shuford Mayeaux & Robert O. Slater - April 28, 2016

This commentary examines the linking of ACT scores with state accountability measures. It argues that ACT demonstrates potential in increasing postsecondary opportunity, particularly for students from low-income families. However, high school administrators, teachers, and students need to work collaboratively if this is to happen.



During 2015, approximately 1.1 million U.S. high school students took the ACT, the leading U.S. college admissions test. While ACT scores have always influenced educational access and opportunity for individual students, they have not traditionally been coupled with school accountability. Over the past 10 years the number of states using ACT as part of their state accountability system for high schools has grown. As of 2015, 14 states require their 11th and 12th grade students to sit for the test. States such as Louisiana have also initiated scholarship programs pegged to ACT results in an effort to boost scores (ACT & NCCEP, 2015; Louisiana Department of Education, 2015).


The linking of ACT scores with state accountability measures has the potential of offering high schools a way to utilize the test to increase postsecondary opportunity, particularly for students from low-income families. As a result, high school administrators need to analyze and manage data better to help meet these positive outcomes. Teachers also should employ short focused daily practice sets with built in mini lessons to develop missing skills like comprehension and fluency. Finally, students must expand their comprehension skills and fluency in a consistent manner to increase their ACT scores.




New financial support that has emerged from state efforts to increase average ACT scores has benefited many students, but also been unsurprisingly less helpful for students from low-income families. Approximately 440,000 low-income U.S. students took the test in 2015, but only 11% met ACT’s college readiness benchmark. Falling short of this benchmark also meant that most low-income students were not able to achieve the minimum scores their home states required for scholarships. As a result, low-income students’ poor performance on the ACT will likely continue to undermine their opportunity to take advantage of policies in states that have tied ACT scores to student scholarships.


For example, Louisiana’s ACT averages now make up 25% of a high school’s annual performance score, and approximately 37,000 students were required to take the test in 2014. Only 32% of students from poor schools, designated as those with 90% or more of their students on the free and reduced lunch program, qualified for scholarships. By contrast, 67% of students from schools where less than a third of learners were on a free and reduced lunch program earned scholarships. As a result, Louisiana students from high-income families were more than twice as likely to receive money for college than students from low-income families largely due to ACT scores.


These developments lead to an important question: How can high schools use the recent linkage of ACT scores to state accountability measures to increase access to college and scholarships for students from low-income families?




ACT scores can be improved with specific and consistent intervention contrary to what many people think. This belief is informed by the common high school policy that requires students with scores below the benchmark of an 18 composite score to enroll in ACT prep courses. These courses range from face to face instruction with a teacher present to computer-assisted programs. Although these methods often result in limited success, fortunately there are better approaches available. ACT scores can be improved efficiently and inexpensively with strategic interventions and a deeper understanding of how different skills correlate with content area subjects.




ACT includes three factors which impact all test sections: content, comprehension, and fluency. First, most ACT prep courses tend to focus on content knowledge, and provide less attention to comprehension and fluency. But these latter two factors tremendously impact student ability to demonstrate content knowledge mastery.


Second, comprehension skills impact content knowledge because students are infrequently required to read large passages found in English or read independently in class. Inferential questions are 50–70% of the questions asked in the reading portion of the test. As a result, drawing an inference is difficult to master if one does not read independently. Also, students seldom work on mixed sets of word problems ranging from math taught in middle school to high school. In addition, the science section requires students to comprehend different visuals and varying scenarios which is seldom a focus in most traditional classrooms.


Finally, fluency is the third factor impacting student performance. In ten years of personally working in and visiting high schools, we have observed few classrooms where English, math, reading, and science skills are timed and a focus on fluency is addressed. As a result, if these three important factors are not accounted for, students miss an important opportunity to improve their test preparation, increase their ACT scores, and enhance their postsecondary academic opportunities.




Effective intervention to improve ACT scores requires focusing on comprehension skills and fluency using controlled, consistent, and short periods involving focused practice sets. The intervention should occur across three levels: schools, classrooms, and with students.


At the school level, officials need to analyze and manage data on student performance, implement incentives for improvement, and monitor implementation. At the classroom level, short focused daily practice sets need to include built in mini lessons designed to develop missing skills particularly those related to comprehension and fluency. Consistent daily practice sets help students overcome the majority of fluency issues. Finally, at the student level, educators need to teach learners to become self-reflective interventionists who improve their own weaknesses. This element is critical in helping students increase efficacy and grit.


The skills required to succeed on the ACT are seldom practiced in schools. For example, the reading section requires students to read four passages and answer 40 questions in 35 minutes. However, most students are seldom required to independently read or work on math problems similar to those found in ACT under strict timed situations. In our informal observations, students rarely examine complex passages for grammatical, contextual, and punctuation errors. While students may participate in science labs, they are not routinely required to analyze multiple experiments or interpretive material to draw conclusions, make connections, or find inferences during a timed situation. While students may possess the content knowledge needed to do well on the ACT, their comprehension and fluency skills are often underdeveloped subject to time constraints.


Convincing teachers and students to try yet another test prep solution is likely to meet with resistance. Many students have already spent numerous hours on computer programs practicing test prep material to no avail. Content teachers may also consider ACT practice as something separate from fundamental content instruction. School officials need to emphasize that the ACT is a gateway to postsecondary opportunity especially given the current linkage of ACT scores with state accountability measures despite possible resistance. With the high number of states that require students to take the ACT and use scores as part of their state accountability plan, school leadership needs efficient, practical, and inexpensive solutions to low student scores.


The intervention outlined above is designed to model the expectations of the ACT assessment. At the end of most ACT practice resources is a conversion chart listing how many correctly answered questions correspond with a specific ACT subscore. Students often only need to answer just a few more questions correctly on each subtest to increase their ACT score by two to three points, and this has the potential to become a motivating factor for students and teachers. For example, to move from a 20 to a 21 in mathematics requires just 23 correct questions out of 60 as opposed to 21 or 22. If a student correctly answers four more questions, the score increases from the initial range of 20 to 23. Teachers and students accordingly need to focus on improving score growth and reaching these small goals.




First, at the school level of intervention, administrators need to analyze the previous ACT student data with teacher teams, and include the composite and subscores for each subsection to note how far each student is from achieving their desired proficiency score.


Administrators also need to create an implementation plan, and the simplest way to achieve this is to assign a subtest to each core teacher. For example, English classes practice the English section, math practices math, science practices science, and social studies teachers focus on reading sections. Practice is described in the classroom intervention section below. This plan requires a minimum of six weeks of daily practice but demonstrates stronger results if applied at least three times a week over a semester.


Administration needs to develop an incentive plan, and each week during the intervention teachers should report student growth by class because incremental success can motivate teachers and students. One way to capitalize on these small victories is to create awards for the class with the most improvement every two weeks.


Another optional task would be to set up free tutoring twice a week after school and/or intensive Saturday workshops. Sessions can be tailored around specific test related issues that students request.




Second, at the classroom level of intervention, actions should consist of steps taken by teachers. There should be a specific daily intervention plan which lasts approximately 5 to 10 minutes per ACT content area. Teachers need to administer a short formative assessment for their assigned subtest every two weeks. Students and teachers should analyze these results and maintain a running data chart on individual learner growth.




Finally, at the student level of intervention, learners need to take individual level actions, and not only work through daily interventions, but also be shown how to become reflective learners and their own personal diagnosticians. Students should correct their subtest, find errors, analyze for patterns, and seek help through resources, teachers, and additional supports like daily tutoring. One critical element is the degree of self-responsibility this program demands of learners. Students are not simply passive receivers of knowledge, but rather reflective partners with teachers. This approach intends to increase both student and teacher self-efficacy, and increase motivation and persistence (Bandura & Schunk, 1981) which is important because learning to be reflective is an important skill for future success. The final motivating factor is focusing on growth rather than simply right or wrong results. Students need to see at least a small level of growth, and realize that focused and reflective practice makes a difference in improving their ACT scores.




Due to the connection between ACT scores and school accountability, high schools now have additional reasons to search for and experiment with ways to increase student test scores, especially those from low-income families. One promising approach coordinates school administrator data analysis, teacher use of focused daily practice sets with mini lessons to build missing skills like comprehension and fluency, and student development of capacity to improve comprehension skills and fluency in a controlled and consistent manner. If applied together, they collectively demonstrate potential in increasing student ACT scores and improving postsecondary educational opportunities.




ACT and National Council for Community and Education Partnerships. (2015). Condition of College and Career Readiness: Students from low-income Families. Retrieved from http://www.act.org/content/dam/act/unsecured/documents/CCCR2015-low-income.pdf

Bandura, A. & Schunk, D. H. (1981). Cultivating competence, self-efficacy, and intrinsic interest through proximal self-motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41(3). 586-598.


Louisiana Department of Education. (2015). TOPS status for 2014 high school graduates by school. Baton Rouge, LA. Retrieved from http://www.osfa.louisiana.gov/MainSitePDFs/Stats/TOPSEligibles2014.pdf


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 28, 2016
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 20298, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 1:40:28 PM

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About the Author
  • Amanda Mayeaux
    University of Louisiana at Lafayette
    E-mail Author
    AMANDA S. MAYEAUX is an Assistant Professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
  • Robert Slater
    University of Louisiana at Lafayette
    E-mail Author
    ROBERT SLATER coordinates the doctoral program in the University of Louisiana at Lafayette's College of Education and directs research development for the Cecil J. Picard Center for Child Development and Lifelong Learning.
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