Jerry Williams knew Providence Academy’s students would fare well on the ACT test last year, but when he received the results of the exam last month, he was shocked.
“It didn’t surprise me that they ended up having a good average, but it did surprise me that their average was a 29,” the school head said Tuesday in his office on the campus of the Johnson City private Christian school. “I just didn’t expect it.”
Williams said the test scores of last year’s graduating class were a record for the school and surpassed the 26.5 average score of all the previous Providence Academy students who have taken the ACT test since 2003.
“We always have good numbers, but that may be the best we ever have,” he said. “I don’t know if there is another school in Tennessee to have an average ACT score of a 29.”
Nationally, students last year achieved an average composite score of 20.9, according to ACT Inc.’s published results.
Students in Tennessee scored 19.5 on average last year, tied with Louisiana for the third-lowest in the country. The state is one of only nine nationwide to make ACT testing mandatory for all of its students.
Johnson City students maintained the previous year’s average of 22.1, with 35 percent of students meeting college preparedness benchmarks in all four tested subjects, Secondary Supervisor Janie Snyder said.
Two of the city district’s high school students, Sajant Anand and Rachel Spady, each earned a perfect composite score of 36, a feat that less than 0.1 percent of students achieve nationally.
Anand and Spady were recognized Tuesday at the Johnson City Board of Education meeting for their outstanding scores.
“Good ACT scores are certainly something that we strive for every year,” Snyder said. “It’s a part of making our students college and career ready.”
Snyder’s counterpart in the Washington County School District, Secondary Supervisor Bill Flanary, said students in David Crockett and Daniel Boone high schools fared well, but still have room for improvement.
“Personally, I was hoping to hit a 20, but we didn’t quite make it,” he said of the district’s 19.7 composite score. “We’re pretty much across the board in line with the state averages.”
Eighteen percent of Washington County’s seniors met all four national benchmarks for college readiness, a measure that Flanary said was a slight increase from previous years.
“We’re proud of the increase, but 18 for us and for the state is not anywhere near where anybody needs to be,” he said.
In an effort to improve the district’s results, Flanary said administrators hope to encourage more students to take algebra II and trigonometry — two classes that have been demonstrated to increase ACT scores — and to ask students questions from previous ACT exams at the beginning of each class, called bell-ringers by the district.
“The first thing they do when they get to class is to answer that question and use those as part of everyday instruction,” Flanary said. “If that ends up being a part of the discussion for a third of the period, so be it.”
Students in Washington County may also begin taking practice ACT tests as early as seventh grade to familiarize them with the process.
Both public school administrators said the gradual implementation of Common Core State Standards, a new group of expected results designed to ready students for college and the workforce, should help to improve ACT scores overall.
“At a time when we’re trying to focus our attention on college preparedness, Common Core Comes along, which also encourages a lot of problem-solving within the curriculum,” Snyder said. “I think we will see higher scores because of the rigorous focus in the class, as well as the different teaching strategies, that fit in well with the ACT questions.”
But Williams said Providence Academy’s success was attributable to the school’s adherence to classical teaching practices and its emphasis on logic.
“It’s how we’re teaching the students to think,” he said. “We’re not teaching to the achievement tests, we’re not teaching to the ACT, and really, it’s not something we talk about.”
Providence Academy employs a classical Christian methodology, which teaches students using three stages of learning linked to child development.
“We teach the students to think for themselves and the good scores follow,” Williams said. “It’s a traditional system that has been proven to work time after time.”