Erice McCollum was one of those teens entering high school with no college history anywhere in his family.
Like it or not, Wyandotte High School counselors in the Kansas City, Kan., School District were telling him and others like him, he would be taking the ACT college entrance exam his junior year.
They would be pushing him toward college credit courses. Gearing the curriculum to match.
“I was thinking, ‘I’m not so sure about that,’” the 18-year-old senior said. “No one (in my family) had ever been to college before. I didn’t think it was necessary.”
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ACT performance — 2014 scores were released Wednesday — have long marked the Kansas City, Kan., district’s greatest struggle.
No district in the area is more invested in the ACT.
No one knows more how hard it is to wedge out widespread gains on the national college entrance exam.
ACT scores in Kansas and Missouri actually nudged upward for a change — and that’s no small feat.
Kansas City, Kan., is the one district in the area that has made the ACT the test it uses to measure its high schools’ performance instead of its state’s test.
By putting all of its 11th-graders into the ACT, the high-poverty district strains against all of the major pressures inhibiting all schools’ ability to raise performance.
Everywhere, school systems with higher percentages of low-income students lag behind more affluent districts.
Locally and nationwide, a performance gap also persists as black and Hispanic students overall score lower than white and Asian students.
And anytime a district increases the percentage of students taking the ACT, its average score almost invariably suffers from testing more students who are less likely to be college ready.
Even with small gains in 2014, the average ACT composite scores of the four general high schools in the Kansas City, Kan., district hovered around a score of 15 — well below state and national averages. Its selective, International Baccalaureate school, Sumner Academy, scored at 22.8.
Overall, Kansas saw its average score rise to 22 from 21.8, out of a possible 36. Missouri rose to 21.8 from 21.6. The national average edged up to 21 from 20.9.
But Kansas City, Kan., claims no regrets.
They are all in on the ACT, said Mary Viveros, the district’s coach of implementation, because they are determined to fight “in the major leagues.”
The anticipation of a college entrance exam fosters the college-minded culture the district wants for a student body that is 34 percent black and 45 percent Hispanic and where 90 percent of all students qualify for meal assistance.
The ACT’s high bar is propelling a district that in three years has pushed a 60 percent four-year graduation rate toward 70 percent.
It helps strengthen a growing dual credit program that is now seeing 40 percent of the graduates from those four schools walking across the stage with college credits already in their pocket.
“It’s hard … working and working, and the ACT still not budging,” Viveros said. “But we are changing the picture in students’ heads. That’s the work that sustains us.”
The picture is changing for students such as McCollum, who soon believed he had the aptitude for college — and who is planning to study architectural engineering at Wichita State University, Kansas State University or the University of Central Missouri. He has loaded up on college-credited courses.
The tide of the district’s ACT scores may be changing in part because it was only a year ago that the district graduated its first class in which all had taken the ACT.
Viveros also thinks that five years of work with a new curriculum and deepening classroom instruction at all grade levels is starting to bear fruit.
“You need several years of high-quality instruction to do well on the ACT,” she said.
Not only did the district’s class of 2014 mostly see a small rise from the year before, the scores of juniors in 2014 already are matching or exceeding the seniors’ scores, and many will take opportunities to retake the test and boost their scores further.
The district is working at many levels to help actual student preparation match their post-high-school aspirations.
National, state gaps
Nationally, it’s an aspiration gap that is posing a problem, said Jon Whitmore, chief executive officer of the ACT.
ACT surveys show that 86 percent of the test takers in the 2014 graduating class aspired to go to college.
Yet 61 percent met two or fewer of the test’s four college-ready benchmarks, including 31 percent who reached none of the benchmarks.
The ACT set the benchmark for each of the four portions of the test — English, math, reading and science. The benchmark was set at the scoring level that predicts a student is 75 percent likely to earn a C or higher in a first-year credit-bearing course in college.
In Missouri and Kansas, more than 92 percent of the test takers aspired to college, but roughly 55 percent met two or fewers of the benchmarks, including 23 percent who met none.
“High aspirations are wonderful,” Whitmore said in a written statement, “but in too many cases, students’ actual preparation is not aligned to those aspirations.”
The persistent achievement gap adds to the nation’s concern, he said.
Nationwide, 49 percent of white students who took the ACT made three or more of the college-ready benchmarks, compared with 23 percent of Hispanic students and 11 percent of black students.
State numbers fared little better.
In Missouri, 50 percent of white students met three or more college-ready benchmarks, compared with 32 percent of Hispanic students and 12 percent of black students.
In Kansas, 53 percent of white students hit three marks, compared with 24 percent of Hispanic students and 16 percent of black students.
The Kansas City, Kan., district aims to continue using the ACT as its performance test, Viveros said.
The district obtained a federal waiver that allowed it to use the ACT rather than the Kansas Assessments used by other districts.
The ACT is by no means a perfect test, Viveros said, “but it opens doors for students.”
Cynthia Negrete, 17, who five years ago watched an older brother leave high school wanting to go to college but unable to do so, feared she too would not be able to break through.
But now she is set to study nursing at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Seventeen-year-old Alyah Caruthers, who stunned herself with an A in intermediate college algebra, is on her way to the University of Missouri-St. Louis, aimed at business management and marketing.
By pushing all students toward the test and, more important, by driving classroom instruction to prepare students, Viveros thinks a bigger picture is taking shape.
The ACT prep is combining with other core strategies in the district’s “Diploma-Plus” initiative.
It is promising that soon every graduate will leave with one year of college credits, an industry-recognized certificate or credential, or a score of 21 or higher on the ACT.
That means getting more students to choose rigorous courses, visit college campuses, seek scholarships and navigate the maze of financial aid.
It’s about putting together “the cultural pieces of going to college,” Viveros said.
Not all students will go to college, but the district wants no more to see students fall out by default, she said.
“Our responsibility is to prepare all of the students,” she said, “so that when decision time comes, it’s their choice.”