ACT prep program pays lasting dividends
by Jill Ragar Esfeld
firstname.lastname@example.orgROELAND PARK — Bishop Miege senior Tim Janczewski will never forget the day his ACT score arrived in the mail.
“When I got home, there was a note on the table,” he recalled, “that just said ‘Tim, you rock!’”
Janczewski scored a 35 – one point away from a perfect score, three points higher than his first try, and five points above his Plan score. (The Plan, an assessment test usually given to sophomores in high school, is used to predict eventual ACT scores.) He gives all the credit for his outstanding performance to his high school and the special program it introduced four years ago.
“I think it has everything to do with my score because I didn’t take any preparation for the test other than the academic program at Miege,” he said. “That’s the only thing I can credit for my performance on the ACT.”
The academic program Janczewski refers to is the Cambridge ACT-Prep Program, part of the curriculum at Bishop Miege, and what president Joe Passantino fondly refers to as “the Miege rebate program.”
“In education it’s hard to find things that pay dividends directly,” Passantino explained. “But this is one that pays dividends to families — I mean dollars.”
He’s not kidding. Janczewski stands a good change of getting a full ride to college. His mother, Patricia Berning, thinks that fact makes the price tag of a Miege education look like an excellent investment.
“I think their program is great,” she said.
“Tim is a high achiever; he’s always done well in school. But I don’t think there’s any doubt the prep program worked for him. Taking standardized tests can be intimidating.
“Miege gets the kids used to it and gives them the advantage of knowing what to expect.”
True college prep
Four years ago, Miege administrators were looking for a way to measure the effectiveness of the school’s college preparatory curriculum. They knew one of the main tools colleges across the nation use to evaluate college readiness is the ACT assessment.
Like other high schools around the country, Miege was using the ACT standardized testing program — testing freshmen with the Explore test, sophomores with the Plan test, and juniors and seniors with the ACT. But administrators were frustrated by the inability to use data from those tests to track students, measure growth and improve curriculum.
Like other high schools, Miege also offered preparatory courses for the ACT, but they were only available outside of school hours to students who were willing to put forth the effort and had time to fit the extra work into their schedules.
Miege administrators wanted, instead, a program that would help 100 percent of its students improve their ACT scores. They wanted to be able to integrate the program into their curriculum and track results so any areas of deficiency could be identified early and shored up systematically. They wanted to be certain all their students had every opportunity to graduate with a knowledge base that prepared them for college and gave them the best shot at getting money to go to college
They found it all in the Cambridge program, now in its fourth year of implementation and showing remarkable results.
Statistics show that students who take the average ACT prep program can expect to improve their score by only one point. Miege is seeing quite a few students adding as many as three points, with a few picking up as many as eight or 10 points. Those points often translate directly into scholarship dollars.
In the 2006 graduating class, six percent of the students scored a 32 or above on the ACT test; thirteen percent scored 30 or above; and all told, the class earned $3.5 million in scholarship offers.
Bishop Miege is the only school in the Kansas City area, and one of few nationally, to offer the Cambridge program.
How it works
“The Cambridge test-prep program,” explained Miege’s director of guidance Brady Beek, “looks at retired ACT tests and scientifically breaks them down into basic skills and test strategies that students need to know.”
Those basic skills and test-taking strategies for each area of the ACT subtests — English, math, reading and science — were then incorporated into the school’s permanent curriculum.
Students are tested in the fall and spring of each year: Freshmen are administered the Plan and sophomores and juniors take a retired ACT test.
In April all three classes take a different ACT exam, which is linked to the August exam. Data is used to measure the individual growth of each student, by course and by classroom, and results are used to target areas that need improvement.
“That’s where the data-driven instruction comes in, so we’re getting feedback to our individual teachers on how their classes are doing in those subtest areas,” said Passantino. “Our approach is not to teach to the test, but to be sure we cover what is on the test, because that’s what colleges are using to measure college readiness.”
Miege instructors admit it was a challenge to incorporate the materials into their curriculum, but now that they’re in the fourth year of the program, they’re thrilled with the results.
“It’s having a very positive impact. Scores are improving, student confidence is improving,” said Clara George, head of the school’s math department. “It isn’t that we don’t study the concepts. I mean Algebra 2 is Algebra 2, but the formatting of the questions on the ACT can really throw you. And the fact that it’s multiple choice — well, you kind of have to learn what strategies to use.”
Why it works
Janczewski agrees and says the program is so well integrated into the curriculum that students are hardly aware they’re getting the extra help.
“It’s fairly simple. They have workbooks in our core classes to teach us the math, science, reading and English,” he said. “We do worksheets out of those maybe once or twice a month. We check all the answers together and discuss why each answer is correct — so we understand, for example, why this English rule is being asked in the problem and how we can answer it correctly. And then sometimes we go to the ACT prep lab and take the interactive tests.”
A second phase of the Cambridge program is an interactive test preparation computer lab, which allows competency-based work in particular areas, timed exams and practice for the timed writing portion of the ACT. Classes use the lab at scheduled intervals, and it’s also open for individual student use.
One of the main byproducts of the Cambridge program is a reduction in test anxiety among students who, by the end of their junior year, will have taken six full ACT exams. Lower test anxiety alone can translate into more correct answers; and one or two more correct answers on each ACT subtest equates to a point increase on the composite score. As many graduating seniors have discovered, those incremental improvements translate into thousands of dollars in scholarship money.
Russell Walter and his twin brother Austin weren’t thinking about college when they chose Miege for high school. The two parishioners of Good Shepherd Church in Shawnee were attracted to the diverse population and the welcoming atmosphere. What they got was a 30 and 32, respectively, on their ACTs.
Russell Walter, who’s taking the test again to try to match his brother’s score, says he attributes their success to the Cambridge program
“First of all, the individual subject practice helped me know what I was going to see on the test,” he said, “and then all the practice tests helped me to be more comfortable. The program gives you an opportunity to know the test before you actually take it. So you don’t have the anxiety you might have had.”
Passantino attributes the success of the program to his hard-working faculty and its dedication to doing the best for Bishop Miege students. Needless to say, he’s pleased with the results.
“It’s accomplishing the goals that we wanted it to, and it’s certainly helped a lot of our students and families with college scholarships and admission opportunities,” he said. “And it’s helped us, as a school, improve instruction and curriculum based on feedback.”
Ironically, Janczewski admits that Bishop Miege was not his first choice for high school. Most of his friends from St. Thomas More Grade School in Kansas City, Mo., were going elsewhere.
But his parents, who had vision beyond grade-school friendships, asked him to give Miege a try. Now that he’s looking at a full ride to college, he doesn’t regret the choice.
“I’ve made a lot of friends here,” he said.
“It’s a great school, and I love it.”