Hope begins at 21: ACT scores jump for Science Hill minority students

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Hope begins at 21, at least when it comes to the ACT college aptitude test – and for black and Hispanic Science Hill High School students, the latest numbers look really good.

Johnson City’s schools were one of just eight school systems statewide to average above a 22 composite score. The 22.7 average put the system near its goal of a 23 average, Science Hill Principal Todd Barnett said. It was the “remarkable jump” by black and Hispanic students that pleased Barnett the most, though.

The percentage of Johnson City minority students scoring high enough to qualify for Tennessee’s Hope Scholarship increased by 60 percent over last year.

“I think that’s a tribute to them as well as our teachers helping to put them in the best position,” Barnett said.

Tennessee’s $3,500 a year Hope Scholarship requires a 21. In 2017, only 19 of 78 (24 percent) black or Hispanic Science Hill students scored 21 or higher. Last year the ratio didn’t change much, with 31 out of 124 (25 percent). This year, 43 out of 107 black or Hispanic test-takers (40 percent) reached the magic number. The percentage of eligible students taking the test has also increased, from 83 percent two years ago to 97 percent in 2019.

“Our focus is trying to get every kid in the building to reach their fullest potential,” Barnett said.

Schoolwide, 62 percent of students scored 21 or better. Like the average composite score, that rate was the best in Northeast Tennessee.

Mitzi Ann Stiltner teaches English and is deeply involved in ACT test prep. The English faculty has spent the past few years leading students through practicing the actual test questions, she said.

“Once we get a baseline of their score then we break down each test to one passage, go over that passage, we answer the questions and we make sure that they are actually getting those skills that they need to be able to answer the questions,” Stiltner said.

It seems to be working, and Barnett said that’s particularly important for the many students whose post-secondary options might be limited by income. “21 gets ‘em money,” Barnett said. “We talk to our staff quite often about a 21 being an opportunity for a kid that they may not otherwise have.”

More economically disadvantaged students scored above a 21 on the most recent ACT — and more took the test, meaning nearly twice as many qualified for the Hope Scholarship compared to two years ago.

No resting on laurels

In addition to pushing for a 23 overall average, Barnett said the system is intent on maintaining the momentum among “sub-groups” that are measured. Those also include economically disadvantaged students, who have seen their number of students scoring 21 or higher nearly double in two years and the percentage increase by more than a third.

This school year, Stiltner said a “practice Saturdays” option has taken on official status. “They actually practice an entire test, all four parts, it will be scored and they will receive individual conferences,” she said. Students can also take an online ACT prep course that they complete at their own pace.

The changes for this year are part of a process, Barnett said.

“You continue to identify areas where you can get better and you try to identify strategies where you can improve those areas.”

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