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What the test scores say about our schools
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Published: 8/17/2008 12:03 AM

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It is wrong to judge the quality of education on standardized test scores alone.

But one such test - the ACT - is a reliable indicator of whether college-bound students are doing well enough in high school to succeed in higher education.

In this regard, the results are promising.

There has been a steady increase in ACT test scores among Illinois students. The class of 2008 averaged a composite score of 20.7 out of a possible 36, up from 20.5 in 2007 and 20.1 in 2002, according to The Associated Press.

This increase is particularly significant in Illinois, because it is one of only three states that requires all juniors - not just college-bound students - to take the ACT. The rise in test scores indicates better performance across the board.

And ACT scores in many suburban school systems continue to be well above the average. That is gratifying but not surprising. One the things that makes for a fine quality of life in the suburbs is excellent schools.

If it were only that way in every school in the suburbs and the state.

As The Associated Press reported, an improvement in white students' performance on the ACT fueled gains in 2008 scores, which means a disturbing trend continues. There is still a wide and ever-growing gap in ACT scores between black students and white students.

In 2008, the average ACT score for black students was an alarmingly low 16.8 - a full five points lower than the average for white students.

Last year, Neuqua Valley and Waubonsie high schools, which serve Aurora and Naperville, began trying something new to close this gap, when little else has worked. They started all-black ACT prep courses. That raised some eyebrows, but the results speak of success. Great success. As we reported last month, roughly two dozen juniors who took teacher Natalie Johnson's class at Waubonsie during the 2007-2008 school year raised their ACT scores by an average of five to six points.

Not only have the students' test scores gone up, so has their confidence. Students say that being in an all-black class didn't make the difference as much as they had a fine teacher and well-structured class. In turn, the students worked hard and parents got involved. That is the key - excellence in instruction coupled with student and parental commitment is always the surest way to academic achievement.

Moreover, education programs that have long been in place are giving minorities a real chance to succeed in school before they even take the ACTs. Early education, such as the Head Start program, has truly prepared children to succeed in kindergarten and beyond. We should know by now that throwing money at the schools isn't alone the answer to education reform. But a strong investment in early education makes financial - and educational - sense.

The true measure of success in the classroom is not a test score, but that every child is being given the best chance to do well in school, which leads to success in life.