Raising the bar

RHS students make vast improvement to ACT scores

By John Underwood
Posted 7/16/19

ROBERTSDALE — When he became principal of Robertsdale High School last June, Joe Sharp set a goal to raise the bar academically for the school.

“There has traditionally been a low expectation …

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Raising the bar

RHS students make vast improvement to ACT scores


ROBERTSDALE — When he became principal of Robertsdale High School last June, Joe Sharp set a goal to raise the bar academically for the school.

“There has traditionally been a low expectation when it comes to this school,” Sharp said. “That is not acceptable to me.”

Sharp’s first goal, he said, was to get students into the mindset that they are there to complete their degree.

“No matter what the students’ goals are, whether they are looking for a career and are going to continue their education, whether they plan to enter the military or whether they are looking to enter the workforce, we want them to believe that this is a four-year institution and they should come in with the goal of completing their education on time,” he said. “We did that by increasing our graduation rate this year by 14 percent.”

Sharp added that three more Robertsdale High School seniors, who had not fulfilled the requirements for graduation in May, had recently completed their degrees, thus adding to that number.

The other area where Sharp wanted to improve was in the standardized college entrance testing known as the ACT, which is traditionally given every year to high school juniors.

“Over the last two years, our average composite score had actually decreased from 17.3 (a perfect score is 36) to 17.1,” Sharp said. “We wanted to try and figure out a way to increase that.”

To accomplish that goal, Sharp solicited the help of newly hired assistant principal Mitch Pinkston, who took the lead in setting up ACT preparation classes.

“We basically took the core sub-tests of English, math, reading comprehension and science, and set out to find where the students needed the most help,” Pinkston said.

Pinkston set up a practice test using an old ACT exam and had students schoolwide take the test.

“We put the students in the same room where they would take the real test,” he said, “and gave them a similar test, taken under similar conditions of the real thing.”

They then took the results from those tests and focused on the areas where students struggled the most, asking teachers in the core subjects of English, math, reading comprehension and science to focus on those areas.

“We focused on areas that weren’t getting enough attention,” Sharp said, “or areas that students may have received instruction as freshmen, but hadn’t necessarily retained that information, so they needed a refresher.”

Pinkston also set up ACT preparation courses, focusing on areas that students would need to make improvements on the testing.

“A lot of these kids just don’t believe that they are college material,” Sharp said, “and we want to prove to them that if they work hard enough they can achieve any goal they set out to accomplish.

“Or some of them think they can’t afford college and we want to show them that by improving their academics and improving their scores, they can get scholarships.”

The result was an increase from an average of 17.1 in 2018 to 17.8 in 2019, an increase of nearly 4 percent.

“These students are not just measured against other schools they are measured by how much their scores increase year over year,” Sharp said. “Our increase this year puts us in the top 8 percent in the nation in terms of improvement and that’s certainly something we can build on.”

Students also improved test scores across the board in benchmark percentages by subtest, increasing from 35 percent of students who met college readiness benchmarks in English (an average score of 18 out of a possible 36), in 2016-17, 11 point below the state average, to 43 percent in 2018-19, which is equal to the state average.

Benchmark scores for math increased from 9 percent in 2016-17 (11 points under the state average) to 16 percent in 2018-19 (just 2 points below the state average). Science benchmarks also increased from 14 percent to 17 percent while benchmark scores for all four areas increased from just 3 percent in 2016-17 to 9 percent in 2018-19.

There was also an increase in the number of students who site continuing education as their mail goal of what they wanted to do after high school.

“We asked the question of sophomores, then the question is asked again as part of the test,” Sharp said. “The number of students who said their goal after high school was to enter college increased from 63 percent to 75 percent.”

While there is still a lot of room for improvement (the school is still below the state average in most area, Sharp and Pinkston said there is a faculty-wide commitment for continued improvement.

For the next school year, Pinkston said he plans to expand the ACT program to a year-round program beginning in the fall.

“Because both Mr. Sharp and I were new last year, there were some logistics that needed to be sorted out and we really didn’t get started until the winter and spring,” Pinkston said. “This year, with a year under our belts, we are going to be able to hit the ground running from day one.”

There are also plans to expand the program from focusing on just juniors, to focusing on the lower grades as well.

“As an alumnus, my goal is to make this school something the entire Central Baldwin community can be proud of, from the Florida state line to the east to Fish River to the west; from Summerdale to the south to Interstate 10 to the north,” Sharp said. “And I want these students to know that they do not have to be limited in their choices after high school. They can achieve whatever they set out to achieve.”