ACT scores looking good |

ACT scores looking good

Students at western Nevada County high schools performed better on the ACT standard college entrance exam, on average, than did students in California and across the nation in most subject areas.

They also scored above the national average on Advanced Placement tests that give them a jump on college classes.

Both sets of tests show college-bound Nevada County students are better prepared, for the most part, than students elsewhere in the state and across America.

But local educators still are looking at those results this month to figure out how they can both improve performance and get more students to take the tests. They especially are looking to see how to improve the students’ performance in science, where average test scores in the county fall just below the national benchmark score on ACT tests.

In addition, some observers have suggested local students should be performing at an even higher rate, as local schools do not have to struggle with multiple foreign languages spoken by a large segment of the student body.

And the test scores offer a limited window into the state of local education They are taken by “students in our high schools who are actively engaged in pursuing admission to a four-year college,” said Ralf Swenson, superintendent of the Nevada Joint Union High School District.

Still, Swenson viewed the scores overall as “positive news. … We’re proud of the students’ achievements.”

ACT college entrance tests are used by many private colleges in California and colleges outside the state. (The University of California and California State University systems require SAT tests for admission, the results of which are expected in October.)

ACT tests are scored on a 36-point scale in English, math, social sciences and physical sciences, and are one indicator of how well students can be expected to do in college.

According to studies of students who have taken an ACT exam and then gone on to take courses in that subject area in college, a test score at or above the national benchmark for each area indicates a 50-50 chance of getting a B in a related class, Swenson said.

In western Nevada County, 118 high school seniors took the ACT exams. Of those, 46 percent overall scored at or above the national benchmark, more than double the national average of 22 percent, according to figures Swenson’s staff developed. He presented the scores to school board trustees last week

Local students did even better in the specific subject areas (see chart on Page A1).

They performed best in English ” not surprising, considering the district’s very high proportion of white students who speak English as their first language.

Students’ average scores also were above the national benchmark in social sciences and in math, that bugaboo subject that has teachers taking a closer look at their texts and teaching methods.

But local students’ lowest ACT scores, on average, came in science: The average score in the district was 23.8, a tad below the national benchmark of 24. Still, students performed better here than statewide, where the average science score was 21.3.

Even in science, local students’ average score shows improvement from the 2007 average score of 22.7, Swenson said.

“We’ve made great progress,” he said, adding educators last year renewed efforts to support science instruction.

At Nevada Union High School in Grass Valley, teachers adopted new biology and chemistry texts, expected to be distributed early in this school year. “They were using materials that were dated and not aligned with state standards,” which have been updated by the state Board of Education over the past six years, Swenson said.

Teachers from NU and Bear River High, in southern Nevada County, also are talking to each other about how and when they teach specific courses. At Bear River, teachers offer strong programs in biology and chemistry early on; at NU, they focus more on physics ” a difference that is reflected in the scores from students’ advanced placement tests in those subjects.

Advanced Placement courses, typically taken by high school seniors, offer higher academic standards than normal high school courses in the same subject.

Like the ACT and SAT tests, passing the Advanced Placement test is one indicator of a student’s likelihood of success in college. Students who pass an AP test are more likely to get overall higher grades in college and finish within five years compared to similar students who do not take an AP test. (Summaries of several studies are presented on the College Board’s Web site,

Most universities in the country will give college credit for a successful AP test.

Students in the Nevada Joint Union district can take AP classes in English literature, American history, world history, government, Spanish, French, calculus, statistics, biology, chemistry, physics and psychology. The College Board, the nonprofit organization based in New York that administers the AP program and exams and the SAT college entrance tests, offers course programs in 22 subjects.

At both Nevada Union and Bear River high schools, 100 percent of students taking the calculus test passed ” a figure that stands in contrast to the difficulty that students are having in math in general.

Local students also performed well in the chemistry, English literature, U.S. history and biology exams. In all those cases, more than 70 percent of district students who took the AP exam passed it.

Nationwide, the average is about 15 percent for all subjects combined, according to data from the College Board. Out of a combined class of about 750 graduating seniors, district students took nearly 460 AP tests. Statewide, about one-quarter of high school students take the AP exam, according to the College Board.

Swenson wants to see more students in AP classes, and the number of tests taken to eventually equal the number of graduating seniors, he said.

“My interest in the AP classes is not in the pass rate, but in getting more students into the class,” Swenson said. “Research shows students who take at least one AP class are more likely to stay in and succeed in a four-year university.”

College Board President Gaston Caperton has said offering AP classes raises the overall academic standards at high schools.

Local educators have started expanding their AP offerings. Nevada Union “went from one AP history class to four and doubled the pass rate,” Swenson said.

The AP classes provide more than instruction, he said. Students enrolled in the classes form “a social-academic network where kids lean on each other” and are more likely to improve, Swenson said.

To contact City Editor Trina Kleist, e-mail or call 477-4230.

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