When Devonte Collins took his first practice ACT test as a sophomore at Soulsville Charter School in Memphis, his score was eight points below the benchmark for being considered college-ready and receiving much-needed scholarship money.
A year later, when he took the college-entrance exam for real, he scored one point above the 21-point benchmark.
“When I had a 13, I really didn’t have too many options,” he told younger Soulsville students in a video message earlier this year. “Now that I have a 22, I can apply to different scholarships … and get more money.”
Devonte is now a freshman attending the University of Memphis, an opportunity he likely wouldn’t have had with a lower ACT score.
Since he took the test in 2015, his entire school has seen an upward trajectory in ACT scores. Soulsville’s average for 2016 improved by more than two points, from 17 to 19.5 — a bright spot across Tennessee, where the average score for public school students was stagnant at 19.4 out of a possible 36. In Shelby County Schools, where Soulsville is authorized as a charter school, the average dropped slightly to 16.8, according to reports released this week.
The Tennessee Department of Education would like to see Soulsville’s gains replicated across the state. State officials are seeking to boost the state average to 21 by 2020.
While Soulsville is still falling short of its ACT goals — last year, only 24 of the school’s 73 juniors who took the exam in the spring scored at least a 21 — school officials think they’ve identified some keys to ACT improvement. Foremost is honing in on test-taking skills.
Test prep is a global business that generates nearly $200 billion annually. Commercial services can be costly, and most Soulsville students come from low-income families. To help their students bridge the gap, Soulsville focuses on test-taking skills and tips in a mandatory junior-year seminar. Students also take at least three mock ACTs before taking the real test in the spring of their junior year.
“On a daily basis, this is an opportunity that students are getting the same access to test prep the same access to rigorous education as students in other places in the country,” said Bryan Hearn, the school’s director of academics.
Another key is helping students see themselves as college-going. The junior-year seminar isn’t just test-prep; it also gives students time to explore what they want to do after high school — and how a good ACT score can contribute to their post-graduate goals.
“We work to invest (students in the ACT) and get other students to explain to them what the ACT score means to them and why it matters,” Hearn says. “A low score may indicate lack of readiness, but often it’s just a student not seeing themselves as college-going. We want to make sure that it’s a valid representation of who they are.”
Student and family buy-in might come easier at Soulsville than at many Tennessee schools. As a charter, families choose to enroll their children there rather than being placed at a school based on neighborhood zoning.
But Hearn thinks Tennessee has what it takes to get its overall scores up. The most important component of ACT preparation, he says, is rigorous instruction in the classroom based on the state’s academic standards. The connections to ACT questions are already there, he said, and Soulsville teachers try to draw students’ attention to what will help them both on the ACT test and in college.
“If we’re really teaching those standards to the depth they require and the rigor they require, students will be prepared for postsecondary opportunities,” he said.
Watch below as Soulsville students rap about their junior seminar:
Clarification: A previous version of this story said 24 of Soulsville’s 79 juniors received an ACT score of 21 or higher. Only 73 Soulsville juniors took the test in spring 2016. Six students from the junior class did not take the ACT in the spring, and will instead take it in the fall.