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Published August 21 2013

Forum editorial: Indicator of failing education?

North Dakota educators frequently boast about the academic achievements of public school students, based on comparisons of scores on national tests. The ACT is one of those tests.

However, North Dakota’s 2013 high school graduating class scored lower than the national average, which suggests the state has little to brag about. Minnesota students’ composite scores were seventh highest in the nation, and significantly above the national average. The scores come after a period when North Dakota was increasing funding to public schools, and Minnesota schools were struggling with funding shortfalls.

It also is troubling that despite North Dakota students’ below average performance, their ACT scores generally meet admissions standards for the state’s colleges and universities. Which raises the question: Are admission standards too low?

School officials are quick to point out the ACT is but one factor in admitting a student to college. True enough. But the ACT and similar national tests of student achievement have for decades been reliable indicators of a student’s academic success in college. The test also has proved to be a good measure of a high school graduate’s knowledge of reading, English, math and science – especially in an era of sometimes scandalous grade inflation.

The new ACT report goes to the heart of one of former higher education Chancellor Hamid Shirvani’s initiatives. While Shirvani was the wrong man for the job, his determination to ramp up requirements for college admissions, thus forcing high schools to better prepare students for college-level work, was on point. The idea might not have been original with the chancellor, but his emphasis was appropriate.

School officials are likely to warn against giving too much weight to ACT scores. They might try to explain away the below-average showing by disparaging interpretation of the data, or by complaining that not all students who take the test are college-bound. Or that the ACT results are reported differently than in previous years. Fair enough, sort of. None of that changes comparisons among states.

They can’t have it both ways. It is as certain as hail in summer that if North Dakota kids scored above the national average, those same school officials would be crowing about their success. But this time, there’s not much to crow about.

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Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.