ACT Webinar Features Best Practices from Outperforming Schools

We all think of the ACT as a tool for colleges – aiding in admissions decisions – but fewer of us also think of the ACT as a tool for high schools and school districts. This year, when it released its graduating class data, ACT, Inc. did something new – they identified high schools that outperformed their peers in terms of ACT scores and asked them to share their best practices for improving student performance. In a recent webinar, ACT CEO Janet Godwin interviewed educators for two such “exemplary schools” and we’ve condensed the big talking points here. 

The webinar focused on the idea that student access to and support in rigorous courses can help create greater success after high school. The featured educators, Domingo Montenegro from Doral Academy in Miami, FL and Grecia Martinez from Uplift Williams in Dallas, TX discussed the practices and philosophies their schools use to achieve this outcome for students. 

Role of Data

Both panelists spoke out the role of targeted assessment in helping them track and improve performance. Importantly, assessment is not an end in itself within these programs, but a means for diagnosing student needs, tailoring curriculum, and providing targeted challenge/support where needed. 

Montenegro, a Language Arts Department Chair with 22 years of teaching experience, described this year as the most challenging of his career. Still, he feels students are making headway due to the school’s challenging curriculum. Specifically, he credited the schools’ English Language Arts program which utilizes Reading Specialists in grades 6-12. Students are pushed to think about and learn things like, “How does a student build a sentence…how do you build a do you create an essay?” The English Department, in particular, uses formative and exit assessments to build curriculum, then these results are regularly assessed.

Martinez, a Secondary Intervention Specialist, credits success to coursework that takes into consideration a student’s academic knowledge. She argues that content needs to be taught in a way that fits within the context of a student’s life. This helps students see the path to success and make choices that lead them towards that success. All high school students at her school work with an interventionist who seeks to help students achieve their own personal goals while utilizing diagnostic testing that identifies core strengths and weaknesses.

Promoting Rigor Buy-In

Given the panelists’ agreement that students need to be challenged to be successful, Godwin inquired about how a school can best foster student motivation.

Montenegro described a closed feedback loop with teacher enthusiasm and role modeling leading to students’ willingness to expand their understanding and skills set, thereby promoting motivation to succeed. He said, “If you have passionate instruction, the acquisition of language is an avenue to success.” 

Martinez discussed the importance of students owning their own data. She emphasized that students understanding their personal strengths and opportunities for improvement allows teachers to facilitate goal setting with their students. Godwin reiterated the possibilities of a collaborative plan to help students track their progress as well as individual discussions with teachers.

COVID’s Disruption to Learning

ACT data for the U.S. high school class of 2020 suggests that more than half of underserved students are not college ready when they leave high school. COVID’s impact on learning – including inadequate virtual platforms and assessments, students who haven’t returned to school, lack of face time with teachers, and disrupted family routines – all mean that students may be even further behind in their academic preparedness for life after high school. Godwin asked her speakers to reflect on their successes in closing the opportunity gap. 

Martinez credits her school’s Intervention program because it starts by teaching foundational skills and leaves students better able to better engage in core classes. Teachers complete monthly check-ins and during the pandemic, these follow-ups have included inquiries about technology needs and the use of paper packets as well as discussing core needed skills.

Montenegro acknowledged that his school, like others, is facing COVID-related challenges and credited his school’s management’s company, which invested heavily in platforms that would make it possible for teachers to deliver lessons during the pandemic. He attributed academic progress to an extremely creative principal promoting access and thinking of what is possible with the curriculum. 

Academic Performance, Trust, and Life Outside the High School Classroom

Godwin also asked about the role of trust and student choices. Martinez stressed the importance of trust. When students trust their teachers and peers, they perform better academically. In turn, when students feel that their relationships with teachers have a purpose in helping them grow, their academic performance improves.

Montenegro raised the notion that high school should be a community of caring and sharing students and staff, where success is measured by a number of factors, including the civic awareness of students. He believes students should need more than just academic credits to graduate, and schools need to speak to students as a part of a greater community.

The speakers agreed that students should have the ability to choose their path, though stressed that students should first attain foundational skills that allow them to open up a future with possibilities and choices. 

For more information on the ACT’s research on graduating students and promising practices shared by some 2020 exemplary high schools, see the Promising Practices Report.

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