As expected, the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) has responded to the latest ACT college-entrance exam results with glowing comparisons between Virginia high school test takers and their peers in other states.
“The percentage of 2018 graduating seniors in Virginia public high schools who met the ACT’s college-readiness benchmark in each content area was 22 or more points higher than the percentages for public graduates nationwide,” stated the VDOE press release.
“The commonwealth’s public school students achieved an average composite score of 23.8 on the ACT, compared with 20.4 for public graduates nationwide,” the press release added. “Public school students accounted for 83 of the 95 Virginia students who achieved perfect scores on the test.”
Wow! If Virginia students are that much smarter than everyone else, that must mean Virginia schools are doing a fantastic job! … Right?
There is less to these comparisons than meets the eye. Click here to view average ACT scores by state graduating class in 2018. As ACT warns at the top of the table: “The best practice is to compare states where the same or similar percentages of graduates were tested (e.g, Alabama 100% and South Carolina 100%; or Kansas 71% and Arizona 66%).”
In 17 states 100% of high school graduates took the tests. Fifty-five percent took the exams nationally. And Virginia? Well, in Virginia only 24% partook. So, while it may be true that nearly twice as many Virginia grads are taking the exams as ten years ago, as Staples said, the percentage in the Old Dominion is less than half the 55% national average. Only in seven states does a smaller percentage participate.
Thus, while the composite score of 23.9 for Virginia students may look good in comparison to (to pick a state) 20.2 for Kentucky, bear in mind that every Kentucky student took the exams while only one in four Virginia students did. When participation is so discretionary, it is safe to assume that the Virginia test-takers are a highly self-selected group — more serious about going to college, better prepared academically, and more likely to earn high ACT scores.
For a meaningful comparison, let’s see how Virginia stacks up against other states where roughly the same percentage of high school grads took the ACT exams.
Er… Not so great. New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Michigan all outperformed Virginia. In each of those states, students are somewhat better prepared for college than Virginia students.
Surely, VDOE knows this. But the Department chose not to provide this context in its press release. Instead, Virginians are fed happy talk about what a great job their schools are doing.
Bacon’s law of public policy: You cannot make things better if you are disconnected from reality.
Bacon’s bottom line: VDOE’s press release strongly suggests that the VDOE’s top brass is disconnected from reality. Alternatively, if VDOE isn’t disconnected from reality, it is peddling happy talk that keeps Virginia lawmakers and the public disconnected from reality. This is no way to achieve the goal of making Virginia the best educated state in the country.
Update: A previous version of this post mistakenly included quotes and graphs from last year’s VDOE press release. I have deleted them and replaced them with quotes and charts from this year’s release.There are currently no comments highlighted.