My principal recently made an announcement at a faculty meeting that received mixed responses from the staff. As of this year, all students will be required to take the ACT as juniors.
I had heard of other schools moving in this direction—even entire states. Louisiana schools made a similar move last year to create a culture of achievement. Philip Martin, a school superintendent in Terrebonne said, “I think you’re going to see kids who say, ‘Well, I didn’t think of myself as college material, but this [ACT] score is better than I thought it would be.’ And that could easily make them go in a direction they wouldn’t have before.” His point is that for some kids, requiring them to take the ACT is a chance to make college an option, where previously they would have completely discounted it.
Many teachers in my district expressed dislike for the policy. They saw it as a waste of time, and they didn’t want to create unrealistic expectations and set kids up for failure.
The principal informed us that the school will be paying for the administration of these tests, and in addition, our school will serve as a testing site for the region. Our new administration wants to shift the ACT question at our school from “Are you taking the ACT?” to “When are you taking the ACT?” By requiring this college entrance exam, our administrator hopes to create an expectation that all our students consider college a viable option.
Practicalities aside, this college-going expectation seems to be the underlying cause of faculty discomfort. Only 15 percent of the adults in our county hold bachelor’s degrees. Many of the students who graduate from our high school will be the first in their family to do so. However, in an informal poll in my regular education Senior English courses, all but five students expressed a desire to go to a four-year institution. The five who said they did not want to go to college have plans to go into the military.
After taking in the messages of both my colleagues and my students, I concluded that the students have much higher expectations for themselves than many of their teachers have for them. As one of my freshmen said while describing herself to the class on the first day of school, “I’m a determined person. I want to show people that even though I’m from Southeastern Ohio, I can still do great things.”
Making the ACT mandatory for juniors certainly puts college in the minds of all the students. However, initiatives like this need support. As a school, we need to do more than offer the illusion of high expectations; students need the cultural capital to reach those expectations. As the recent report from Brookings Institute highlights, high school classroom teachers can do even more to provide necessary information to our students. But to be successful at this, classroom teachers must be part of this cultural transformation, which means transforming the culture of low expectations.
We can create a culture of achievement by making sure all incoming students enroll in a college-preparatory course of study. We can provide class time for college searches and exploration of undergraduate courses of study. We can encourage our youth to visit colleges they are interested in. We can help them brainstorm and edit scholarship and admissions essays. We can coach all students through the admissions process. We can meet with their families to alleviate misgivings.
And in doing so, we can let students know we don’t just hope they’ll go to college, we have full confidence that they will.
Ricket is a high school English teacher in Ohio.