How We ACT Test Prep

Last year, 15% of our juniors met the math requirement on the PSAE. Our goal for this year is 45%.  We have 20 juniors.

Um, yeah.

I only have 8 juniors. I teach Algebra 1 and Geometry so basically, my juniors are already behind.

This year my school won a School Improvement grant with a LOTTTTTT of money and some instructional coaches. We are looking for a good systematic way to turn our school around and improve math scores and student learning. But for now, we are in triage.

We have a built in zero periods where students are separated by grade level. So all juniors are together and they start out the year on the WIN computer program which simulates the WorkKeys portion of the ACT. Students take a pre-test to assess their level 1-7 and then do short lessons on their weakest topics to hopefully move them up to level 7. It is very dry, boring, and wordy. After that, the Juniors have been working out of the PSAE Coach books. They also worked on reading analyzing graphs, a weak point for us, but I'm not sure what resources they used for that. 

As of late, our math instructional coach took the top 7 students and very informally trained them on peer tutoring. They were then paired with the next 7 students. Right there, we've taken care of 14 out of the 20 students in class. The lowest 6 are then left for the teachers and instructional coach to pull out individually.

Our online grade book/assessment system is STI Information Now. While it has it's share of problems and bugs, the company has been working with us to write formative quizzes. They started out writing quizzes with 36 questions or more on them but we said that cannot work. Our students are already on burn out mode. So they dropped them down to 12. Each week we have an ACT Focus. The students are taught short lessons each day and then on Fridays, they are given the 12 question test. They see their scores on Monday, and students who score below 70% are pulled out individually by the instructional coach for remediation.

This method is working (I suppose) for now, but what happens when the instructional coach is no longer there? You guessed it. Something else for the math teacher to do. There's only 2 of us.

So what are teachers in the classroom actually doing to help boost scores? Teachers in all subject areas are given the weekly focus and some sample questions. The hope is that there will be a natural fit within the curriculum somewhere. I could not even tell you how that is going. All I know is that most teachers were using the literal sample questions and kids were seeing the same questions multiple times a week. Which may or may not be a bad thing. When I talked to the coach, it was communicated that the intention was not for them to literally use the sample questions but to use those as a guide. I responded with the seemingly obvious fact that if we knew how / were good at writing ACT questions, wouldn't be doing that already? Or working for ACT? To me, not the best plan of attack. I have scoured the internet for ACT practice test and I have a few books but here is a collection of what I've found. It isn't much.

For students in algebra and geometry, the principal looked at their previous PLAN and EXPLORE scores and using those, placed students who did not meet into an extra math class. The same was done for reading such that some students have all academic classes and no electives. We started out the year using Kuta worksheets to focus on specific skills. But that was really boring and I'm not sure how effective. We moved to the computer program ALEKS so that students could work at their own pace. A lot of students goof off and waste time doing other things. It's hard for me to monitor because every student could potentially be working on something different. That means I have to help on an individual basis instead of stopping the whole class and re-teaching one concept. So of course while I am helping one, the rest will be easily distracted. I started grading them by giving them participation points depending on how much time spent on a daily basis, but...they don't really care.

Other than that, we were doing Progress Checks each week (included in the collection) but there was more misunderstanding there. I wasn't teaching those concepts so what was the point of checking their progress? That kind of fell to the wayside.

The other thing that I know I have been doing is trying to kick my questions and assessments up a notch. In one of our SIP days, we talked about DoK levels and how most of our assessments are review and recall. I have been working to write questions and assessments that are multi-step. Students may have to solve, plug in, solve again, etc. In geometry, I'm always looking to incorporate and review algebra skills. I've been trying to get my students used to reading the question and answering what the question is asking instead of choosing the first number that they see in their work.

My most recent attempt is to incorporate ACT questions on my daily bell ringers. That way at least I know they are being exposed to the questions, the wording, the concepts.

Next up our (baby version) math instructional team is looking at this ACT curriculum review document to help align when and where each ACT standard is being taught. We hope to re-align from K-12 to make sure there are no missing gaps as well as come up with required grade level vocabulary.

In the future, we are thinking about exit exams for every grade....but that's for another post.

How does your school test prep?


  1. Wow! That was a lot of info and I had to read it a couple of times. Thank you so much for sharing! What I am going to take away: Your collection of practice questions. Not much? It is more than I have! Also, the curriculum review document -- I'd say we are overdue in examining our district K-12. I am also thinking about changing the types of questions I use for bell work. Thanks for giving me a bunch to think about. :)

  2. Only 20 juniors in the school? That's tiny even by private-school standards. So you have 2 math teachers for about 80 students total? That's less than half the student/teacher ratio in California high schools (my son's school has 9 math teachers for 1100 students).

    As I understand it, PSAE is Illinois' 11th grade assessment using the ACT test, a science assessment from the board of education, and 2 WorkKeys assessments. I've not been able to figure out from the web what level "meeting the math requirement" is in Illinois, but one can do fairly well on the ACT with just pre-algebra and a smattering of algebra, so it sounds like the problem is one that is going to be hard to remediate at the high-school level: it is mainly middle-school math. Perhaps what is needed is to redo prealgebra the freshman year. Better the kids know they are a year behind than to keep promoting them when they don't know the material.

  3. Amy,
    I'm glad you found something useful. Hopefully we will come with more and even better ideas that I can share! How do you ACT test prep? Your turn to blog it!

    Gas station,
    We have about 150 kinds in the high school. The junior class is exceptionally small, even for us. Yes, we do have small class sizes since we are a small school but there are advantages and disadvantages to both. The PSAE is one day of the ACT test and one day of the WorkKeys. You are correct that one can do fairly well on the ACT with just pre-algebra and a smattering of algebra. For us, we need students to get a composite score of 19. You're suggestion of redoing prealgebra is being done, kind of. This year we basically forcedall eighth grade students to take Algebra. A portion of them had pre-algebra last year and so this natural for them. The problem is, some kids went straight from general math to algebra, skipping the pre-algebra in between. The idea is that if they do well in algebra then they will start high school with geometry. If they don't do well, then they take algebra again in high school and hopefully do well since material should be familiar to them and hopefully give them a good head start. The middle school teachers are not happy and feel that they are not doing justice to algebra. It is so watered down just to get them to survive. So, just because they get an A or B does not really mean they have a good grasp on the material. The issue is that if we jump the 8th graders up, then we have to jump up every previous course to prepare them for that. Which is doable, but not instantly. We have seen and heard this done in quite a few schools that have made big gains and improvement but of course, the transition period in any change is messy. So we'll see what happens next year in algebra I suppose.

    Thanks for pointing that out. I forgot to mention that in the main post.

  4. Elissa, does everyone take the ACT in your state? Just thinking that your juniors in Algebra I can't be expecting to go straight to a 4-year college, right? So why do they need to take a college entrance exam? I am going to post my ACT thoughts soon. Sorry it has taken so long . . . Amy

  5. Amy,
    Yes, everyone in the state takes the ACT. Illinois does not have any other state test. And you are totally right,it makes no sense to do so since not all kids are going to a four year college. But Illinois is apparently to broke to write a new test or care about teacher input and what makes sense for kids.