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ACT Participation Not Reflecting Minnesota Students

August 18, 2009 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

While Minnesotans can feel good about student achievement on the ACT college placement test, the results once again reveal the disparities about which students believe they can go to college.

Minnesotans performed well against students in other states, placing in the top 10 when compared to all states and near the top when compared to states where the majority of students take the ACT rather than the other major college placement test, the SAT.

However, looking at achievement is one thing. Looking at those who actually take the test is another. This is an important indicator because the ACT is a college placement test and only students who have a desire to go to college take the ACT. Therefore, looking at the number of students who bother to take the test shows the level of interest in college, both in the student body as a whole and among the 11th and 12th-graders who typically take the test.

Consider this: African Americans make up about 10 percent of Minnesota's student population, yet of the students who took the ACT, only 4 percent of them were African American. Similarly, only 14 percent of African Americans enrolled in 11th and 12 grades opted to take the test.

Hispanic students make up 6 percent of Minnesota's enrollment, yet only 2 percent of ACT test-takers were Hispanic. Like African Americans, only 14 percent of Hispanics in 11th or 12th grade chose to take the test.

Asian American students make up 6 percent of the total student population and 5 percent of those taking the ACT. Of 11th and 12th graders, however, 27 percent chose to take the test.

Native American students make up 2 percent of Minnesota's student enrollment, and 1 percent of those who took the ACT. Of 11th and 12th-grade Native Americans, 9 percent took the ACT.

White students make up 76 percent of the student body in Minnesota and 81 percent of the ACT test-takers. Of 11th and 12th-graders, 32 percent took the ACT. (These numbers don't add up to 100 percent because some students didn't specify a racial heritage.)

Experts say the desire to attend college is explained by a variety of factors.

Richard Mack, a school counselor at Arlington High School in St. Paul, said many minority students don't realize that college is an option either because of poor grades or financial constraints.

He said family background also contributes to a student's decision not to pursue college. "They might have to drop out of school to work and help the family. Or the family might not want them to leave home and go to college," he said.

Baris Gumus-Dawes, a research fellow at the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota, said the numbers are indicative of the age students drop out. "Most students drop out by 9th grade" and never consider post-high school education as an option, she said.

Grade retention is also important, she added. Because of pressure put on schools by penalties imposed by the No Child Left Behind act, "teachers are more often using grade retention as a remediation tool," she said. Unfortunately, "it hurts the student's life potential because dropout rates spike among students who are retained."

While Minnesota has every right to be proud of its students' performance on the ACT, the test does show a major flaw in our state's education system.  The makeup of Minnesota's college-bound students should reflect the makeup of our student population.

All students deserve an opportunity to succeed. If our state policymakers make the right investments in all our schools, more students will be college-bound. This would be good for our 21st Century workforce, of course. More well-trained workers mean better-paying jobs, more taxpayers, and a better quality of life for everyone.
 

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