John White’s Spinning Wheel of ACT Scores: More Students Are Qualified to Go to College Except When They Actually Try to Go (Part 3 in a Series)

Part 3 of Bobby Jindal’s Anti-Tax Cult and John White’s “Reformers”: Working Together to Keep More Kids out of State Universities

Every summer since John White became LDOE commissioner, the people who work in my profession are treated to his annual dose of misinformation about what it takes to get into Louisiana’s universities. One hundred and ten percent of his focus is on the ACT composite score, which ceased being a major factor in whether Louisiana graduates are able to be admitted to our state universities long before Louisiana was a gleam in Mr. White’s eye. While the composite can determine whether a student might get admitted, let’s say, to LSU over LaTech, unless the student comes from a non-state registered school without at least most of the Core 4 curriculum or has a GED (definitely not the groups that White is addressing) the ACT composite is barely a factor in determining whether a student can be admitted to a four-year university at all. That honor goes to the ACT math subscore.

We collectively shake our heads, I might post something in the Advocate’s or Times-Picayune’s comments, then I ignore the people who say I don’t know what I’m talking about because all of higher ed just spends, spends, spends and we should just all close down already. We then spend an entire year telling students, parents, and even the occasional college counselor (although thankfully that last one is becoming increasingly rare) that no, an ACT composite of 18 does not get you in college, not in our state. It doesn’t even get you TOPS, or at least not the TOPS that pays four-year university tuition.

This year we got an extra bit of misinformation (it’s like lagniappe!) from Mr. White after Mercedes Schneider posted state ACT results on her website. This was because after months and months and months and months of waiting, DOE didn’t release the data, she found someone else who had it, and magically! soon after her post, White releases his report.

But, hmmm, it’s a bit different than what ACT reported in its publicly accessible Class Profile Report.

[By the way, Peter Cook, John White’s data are not official from the ACT. Mercedes Schneider’s data are from the ACT. John White’s data are only official because he is an official, not because they are accurate. Ms. Schneider got hers from an ACT-provided source. They match the ACT’s Class Profile Report.]

Just for comparison, this past June, John White announced that 23,560 students in Louisiana’s Class of 2014 scored at least an 18 composite on the ACT while in high school. He also said (like he did in 2013), that this magic! score means that students can be admitted to college in Louisiana without remediation requirements.

There are several problems with this. First, in Louisiana, the minimum subscores needed to avoid remediation (or developmental coursework) are a 19 math and 18 English. The composite, while related (since it is an average of all four ACT subscores in math, English, science and reading), is not the same.

Second, White’s data are not from the ACT. He reports what he calls the “best score” rather than all scores. The LDOE report released in February also shows that they report on the state test date results only (the March test date). The ACT reports on all Louisiana students, public, private, charter, and even registered home school, on all test dates. So despite the fact that he massages the data, he actually underreports what the ACT itself reported which was:

  • 49,178 students in the Louisiana Class of 2014 took the ACT, not the 39,773 that White reported. The LDOE report clearly states that it includes public school students’ state test date scores only. The ACT data include everyone on both national and state test dates.
  • 28,831 achieved an ACT composite of 18, not the 23,560 White reported in June. At that time, White indicated that was for all Louisiana, not just Louisiana publics. According to the ACT, 22,073 of public school students got an ACT composite of 18.

Of course, when the ACT’s score reports came out in August, the Times-Picayune noticed some, well, discrepancies, which is when White announced that they used a “best” score analysis, not the most recent score like the ACT does. That would be a fair argument if White looked at all the data. But he doesn’t. All he reports on are the state test date only scores—so from the March test date only. The scores from the several national test dates a year are not reported. So for most students in the class of 2014, they took the state ACT once as juniors, and perhaps a second time as seniors. So the best score is of what, one score report, maybe two? What if the student took it multiple times on national test dates, which is very common in our state where students retake multiple times to try and get TOPS?

And, even though this is not likely but is possible, what if things are done to help boost test scores on the state test dates that don’t occur on the national dates? Remember also that the ACT Profile report includes privates as well, which would help increase the average score. Fortunately, the ACT does allow subscribers to its ACT EIS product to break it down further. The average public score in Louisiana according to the ACT was an 18.6, and among all students was a 19.3.

Anyway, whether one looks at the best score or more recent score, all that argument does is conceal the real issue. The ACT composite of 18 is not the magic! score to get university admission in Louisiana. It does not even qualify a student to get TOPS Opportunity, which is the basic scholarship for university-bound students. It is, however, the magic! score for a school to avoid getting a big fat zero on their SPS (School Performance Score).

I’m using ACT’s data, and ACT’s analysis for one reason, and it has nothing to do with the best score (which some universities use but not all or even most) or most recent score methodology.

You, the reader, can verify it. You don’t have to take my word for it.

Try verifying White’s data. All you can verify it against are reports run by his own agency. They don’t match the ACT’s data.

Everything I report can be verified with the ACT because that’s where I got ACT data from. ‘Nuff said.

So, let’s dig in and see how many of those students who got that magic! 18 composite didn’t actually meet our state’s minimum university admission standards.

First, let’s look at the high school GPA requirement. Out of the 28,831 students who got an 18 composite last year, only 789 did not have a high school GPA of at least a 2.0. So that’s a good thing. The composite is closely related to meeting the high school GPA requirement. College success is also closely related to high school GPA.

But, what about those subscores?

9,265 of those getting an ACT composite of 18 got less than a 19 ACT math. Uh oh. Those students need developmental education which means that they don’t meet the state’s university standards.

2,959 of those students got less than an 18 English. Uh oh again.

So when you put them all together (since some of these students miss on more than one criterion), out of the 28,831 students in Louisiana who got the magic! 18 composite, 16,564 met all the standards (2.0 GPA, 19 ACT math, 18 ACT English). This means that 12,267 students, or 43% of the students who got an 18 composite, did not meet our state’s minimum university admission standards.

When that many students getting an 18 composite don’t meet minimum standards, you can’t go around and say that they qualify for university admission. That’s why we in higher ed collectively cringe every year when White says that.

I actually don’t have a problem with an 18 ACT composite qualifying a student for a four-year university. I’m not arguing against standards. I AM arguing for standards that make academic sense and help admit students who have a greater likelihood of succeeding rather than just keeping students out of college en masse as the GRAD Act linked standards do. The ACT subscores alone do not reliably predict college success, just the likelihood of getting a certain grade in one class—either freshman English or math. Studies that do indicate that they predict overall college success tend to include predominantly white samples. While those courses are important, they are not the only variables that can make or break a student’s college careers. If that were true, we would be graduating far fewer students than we are now since many of our students require developmental coursework. I can argue that among Louisiana students, which are more likely to be from low to low-middle income families, cost and affordability are equally important factors that Jindal’s policies are doing absolutely nothing to address. The ACT composite is more closely related to high school GPA which is a predictor of success.

But don’t say that an 18 composite qualifies students for state universities when it doesn’t. It paints a nice, rosy picture of what is going on in Louisiana when behind the scenes a very significant percentage of those kids don’t actually meet the minimum requirements for admission.

White’s reformist cheerleading provides perfect cover for Jindal and what he accomplished with GRAD Act, even if White isn’t his best bud anymore. White says that we are doing great! while Jindal’s booby trapped law continues to downsize Louisiana’s universities by keeping students who (according to White) are qualified for college out of college.

However, underneath White’s ACT spin, Louisiana is doing a couple of very important things right in order to prepare students for college. First, White is correct in that more students are graduating from high school than ever before. In fact, more students are graduating with the Regents’/TOPS Core 4 college prep curriculum each year (source: Board of Regents Core Reports):

Grad Year Graduates Core 4 Grads Core Completion Rate
2011 43041 28347 65.9%
2012 43319 30151 69.6%
2013 43776 30882 70.5%
2014 45678 33639 73.6%

It is quite impressive that in four years, the percentage of students graduating with the Core 4 curriculum has jumped by almost ten percentage points. So while there has been a significant increase in the number of high school graduates overall, the number and percentage of students completing a college-prep curriculum has skyrocketed in comparison. Nearly 5,300 more students graduated with the Core 4 curriculum than in 2011.  While one could argue whether Jindal or White or his predecessor Paul Pastorek can claim all, some, or any of the credit, the fact of the matter is, this happened on Jindal’s watch. I actually think the Board of Regents should share more of the credit since they have been promoting college prep core completion rates for years—so long before Jindal was in office—and they’ve gone up every year I have worked in Louisiana. This was an explicit goal in the 2001 Master Plan for Public Higher Education and was a required criterion in the Admissions Criteria Framework developed in compliance with the 1994 Higher Education Desegregation Agreement.

African American students are also graduating at higher rates overall and with the Core 4 curriculum than four years ago:

Grad Year Graduates Core 4 Grads Core Completion Rate
2011 15219 8524 56.0%
2012 15871 9798 61.7%
2013 15870 10052 63.3%
2014 16687 10997 65.9%

The overall sizes of Louisiana’s African American graduating classes have boomed in the last four years—and especially between 2013 and 2014. And as among the general population, the percentage of students graduating with the Core 4 curriculum has also risen almost ten percentage points.

But remember, from my last post in this series, how many of these students met the state’s official admission standards in 2014 according to ACT data?

2,379. 14% of all African American grads, and 22% of Core 4 completing grads.

Snowball, meet hell.

This isn’t because our kids aren’t getting college ready.

It is because the game is rigged.

My counterparts and I should be celebrating because more kids are college-ready. We should be growing. More students are graduating, and more students are graduating with Core 4. Heck, more students are getting that magic! 18 ACT composite. So that should be more students for both the four-year and two-year schools. Yay, us!

But, no. Collectively, nearly 10,000 fewer students were enrolled in Louisiana’s state colleges and universities in fall 2014 than in fall 2010.

We have been cut on both sides. The two-year schools, LSU and two of the three statewide universities have suffered more on the funding side, so they are less and less able to handle the students coming through their doors. UNO and the regional universities, especially the HBCUs, have also been heavily impacted on the enrollment side, through imposing admission standards designed to make Louisiana stronger by making government smaller shrink enrollment at our state universities.

But hey, maybe if we shut down some of those regionals, then there will be more money for LSU and the community colleges, right?

I have another idea. Let some of the students who aren’t going to college go to college. Because there are a lot more of them now than in 2011, the first graduating class in the GRAD Act era.

We are bleeding students which is growing the population of young people who the Cowen Institute calls “opportunity youth.” “Opportunity youth” are young people 16-24 who aren’t working and aren’t going to school.

What a misnomer if ever I heard one. But I digress.

I prefer to call them “gap” students, or at least the ones who have graduated from high school but have either not transitioned to college at all or have “undermatched” to schools that don’t line up with students’ capabilities and aspirations. Maybe it’s not as catchy, but it is less Orwellian. This is the population of high school graduates who either did not continue to postsecondary education, or who have completed Core 4 and did not continue to four-year universities.

Year Graduates Core Enrolled Postsecondary Enrolled 4-year GAP – Core to 4 year GAP – Grads to Post Secondary
2011 43041 28347 37765 20879 7468 5276
2012 43319 30151 36850 20889 9262 6469
2013 43777 30882 36720 21122 9760 7057
2014 45678 33639 36774 20990 12649 8904

This chart helps explain why I keep yelling, “fire” while some of my counterparts in higher education who may not all be looking at this part of the picture are simply glad that enrollments aren’t worse. On a year to year basis, new state postsecondary enrollments have been essentially flat, with a decline in overall enrollments. The four-year institutions (mostly the regionals and HBCUs) experienced a decline in 2014 compared to the previous year, but in isolation it doesn’t look that bad. Of course, as I discussed last time, part of the reason why it wasn’t “that bad” is because of a temporary pilot program that kept the bottom from falling out of our collective fall first time freshman enrollments.

But even with that program, look how many more students are being left on the table year after year because even though more students are graduating from high school, more are not continuing on to college.

Last year, thousands of our high school graduates did not go to a state postsecondary institution. 8,900 fewer students than high school graduates started in our state postsecondary institutions this past fall. And nearly 13,000 fewer students than college-prep, Core 4 graduates started in our four-year universities. These are the students I am most concerned about because they have been led to believe that they could go to four-year universities (and according to the ACT, 35,356 from the Class of 2014, or 72%, aspire to a bachelor’s degree or greater), did what they needed to do to prepare for four-year universities, and then we shut the door to a significant percentage of them because of their ACT subscores. This spells discouragement.

Where are they going? Well, Mississippi is enrolling more of our students each year, but not all of these. Last year, just over 1,600 Louisiana students attended school in Mississippi.

They aren’t going to the two year schools… otherwise the overall postsecondary counts would be up.

According to IPEDS in 2012 (the most recent full report available with state migration data), 2,349 Louisiana students were enrolled in out of state schools, and 2,737 in in-state privates and for-profits.

Also, LDOE generates a College Enrollment and Persistence report—the most recent available is for the same year, the 2012 cohort. According to LDOE, of 36,705 public high school graduates (in contrast, the Regents’ report I have access to, like the ACT’s, includes everyone, publics and privates), only 66% went to any postsecondary institution within 16 months of high school graduation.

All this to show that we should be trying to enroll more students, not fewer. And that the students are out there for us to enroll.

We certainly shouldn’t be gaming the system to try and shut down, merge or privatize institutions. At least not in a way that involves keeping students out of college in order to force the issue. If it must be done (and I’m not sure it must), then do it because it’s best for Louisiana, and in a way that maintains access and student capacity, not because Jindal put a tourniquet on a limb or two while we were sleeping and we eventually need to amputate to save the whole body.

We certainly shouldn’t be shrinking or defunding our higher education system. Reorganize it, fine. But shrinking? We can’t afford to unless we want Louisiana to be known for an even bigger population of “opportunity” students than it has now.

This post is getting very long, and so I don’t lose my readers, I’m going to split Part 3 into two parts. (It’s kind of like a scripted adaptation of a really long novel, so maybe I can get a film credit for doing so!) So in the next post of this series, I will get into the impact on Orleans Parish, in which a disproportionate percentage of African American students are being sent either to the two year schools or are being shut out of higher education altogether.

Which, I contend, was the end game of GRAD Act. If this wasn’t planned, it could certainly have been predicted.

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9 thoughts on “John White’s Spinning Wheel of ACT Scores: More Students Are Qualified to Go to College Except When They Actually Try to Go (Part 3 in a Series)

  1. This is interesting stuff. Thank you! What would be the minimum, key changes to admissions requirements to reinvigorate demand at the regionals?

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    • There are two things that need to happen. First and most importantly, GRAD Act needs to be amended so that regional institutions are once again allowed to teach developmental courses. If that doesn’t happen, then no substantive changes can be made. Then the admission criteria themselves need to be addressed to give the regionals and HBCUs a real market rather than shutting students out of higher ed like we are doing right now. There could be a floor on it (so students needing multiple levels of developmental coursework would go to community colleges). Like I said, the students are out there. I can tell you at my own institution we would have had healthy enrollment last year IF we could have admitted the students that we could admit even in 2013.

      Another thing I haven’t addressed at all yet are adult students. Many of our adult students don’t qualify for admission either. The universities used to be open admission for 25+ students to encourage them to go back to school but now they have to meet the same zero developmental standards as everyone else. Many of them hadn’t even taken the ACT, much less gotten the scores they need to get in college. However, older students are more successful overall. My institution is one that typically enrolls a significant adult population. That shrank to ONE, yes just ONE student last fall. And not that many more this past spring (which is when a lot of adults start college… spring enrollments are usually more adult and transfer). We don’t necessarily have to go all the way back to open enrollment for adults, since some could start at community college… but standards that make sense for that population.

      By the way, the DEMAND does not need to be reinvigorated. It is out there. We are shutting students out. THAT is the problem.

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  2. Your analysis is starting to remind me of another blogger. “Alexander made his bones and a lot of money by selling Kentucky on the fact that various demographic populations were horribly underrepresented in terms of educational resources. When he got to MSU, his focus was solely on pumping up tuition, which is highest from international students. There was also graft involved. So the Asian and English Language Institute students pumped up his Asian numbers. Meanwhile, the African-American enrollment at MSU in his day would have been miniscule were it not for athletes…. They talk a good game, but, in the end, all they care about is bringing in more money by any means to pump up management costs, the students be damned” (Brian Alan Lane June 29, 2013 at 4:56 PM). I’m not big into such conspiracy theories but am a fan of number crunching and how it can reveal truth.

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    • Well, that hasn’t happened here per se because our state legislature controls all tuition rates, not just in-state or undergrads. But removing restrictions on international, out of state, and graduate tuition are all on the table this year… in which case, yes, that could happen here since we are under a lot of pressure to increase revenue. I am at one of the smaller institutions so we have very limited funds to help recruit out of state students and almost no scholarship funding for international students.

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