The Ottumwa Courier

August 21, 2013

Tougher classes boost ACT scores

Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — One lesson Ottumwa High School educators want graduates to take into the world: You need to push to succeed, whether in high school, the work world or on the ACT college-entrance exam, the results of which were published today.

“Once again, our data [shows] that high school success and college readiness are not necessarily the same thing,” said a national statement from Jon Whitmore, CEO of the nonprofit ACT group. “Too many students are likely to struggle after they graduate from high school."

Ottumwa superintendent of schools Davis Eidahl said students are truly challenged when they get to college, technical school or on-the-job training. After getting good grades in easy high school classes, they're shocked.

"I think sometimes that is the result of a curriculum that is not rigorous enough," Eidahl said. "The Iowa Core Curriculum is [demanding] a lot more rigorous coursework. It does more than just ask students to [demonstrate] recall. To think critically, to be able to defend a point, to predict, problem solving. That's the Iowa Core."

The head of ACT said states need to implement those tougher standards nationally.The majority of America's high school graduates are "ill-prepared for success at the next level," according to the latest edition of ACT’s yearly report, The Condition of College & Career Readiness 2013.

“We are encouraged to see efforts already underway to address readiness issues,” said Whitmore. “Individual states are making bold efforts to improve college and career readiness, including strengthening learning standards. The Common Core State Standards, which ACT helped develop, are raising the bar."

Eidahl believes the tougher classes are paying off. The "composite" score for Ottumwa students went from 21.6 in 2012 up to 21.9 in 2013. Though that score is below the state composite score, the superintendent said the district is heading in the right direction.

Especially, he said, since 10 percent more students took the exam. Typically, regions where only the top, college-bound students take the test do better than areas where all kids take the test. The Ottumwa district has encouraged more and more students to take the college-entrance exam to at least give themselves another option, Eidahl said.

"I was very pleased we're getting more students to participate," he added. "Our goal as a district is to graduate each and every student prepared for ... that post-secondary future."

The two learning areas in which state and federal education officials have pushed hardest — math and reading — saw increased scores in Ottumwa. Math scores went up a bit, from 21.6 to 21.7. Reading went from a 22.2 to a 22.5.

Though he prefers to use multiple test scores to see how students are doing, he is pleased to see this reflection of current efforts, he said. They'll keep working at increasing student achievement, he added, which brought up another point.

A quality he wants to see in district staff is one that will help students after high school, said Eidahl: persistence.

"The word we've talked about a lot as a district is 'grit.' Grit meaning perseverance, to stay the course when we challenge them with tough academic coursework. Without grit, they don't find success," he said.

One of the lessons he said successful organizations and individuals already know: Success might only come after failure.

"You will experience failure," Eidahl said. "You need to plow through it and learn from it ... get back up and push forward, stronger."

— To see reporter Mark Newman's Twitter feed, go to @couriermark