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In this era of high-stakes testing, states are holding high schools accountable for their testing performance. As a way to combat the increase in federally mandated testing and provide relevancy for students, about 20 states have now committed to using either the SAT college entrance exam or the ACT test to give students the opportunity to take a college entrance exam. 

This approach offers the opportunity to meet federal testing requirements and simultaneously provides an assessment that is useful for students, families, and school officials.

Our University of Northern Colorado research team was interested in finding out what actions principals were taking to raise composite ACT scores. We produced a paper based on the research we conducted, called What Actions Do Principals Report Taking to Increase Composite ACT High School Scores, which is not yet published.


We sent a questionnaire to the seven high school principals in a suburban school district in Colorado, and six principals responded. The researchers identified 37 “meaningful action statements” used to identify common themes with regard to improving composite ACT high school scores.

The district was chosen because of the diverse high school demographics within the school district. The district consists of schools with more than 1,100 students and also fewer than 300 students. Additionally, the district’s high schools include schools with a high socioeconomic status and schools that had approximately 40 percent of their student population ranked as low socioeconomic status. 

Principals’ Actions

Researchers examined what themes evolved from principals’ responses when asked what they did to improve composite ACT high school scores and identified three specific themes: training programs, staff professional development, and communication. Here are the specific findings:

Student training programs allow time for practice. Principals in all six schools reported a variety of programs enacted under their leadership. Three training programs were specifically identified for students to help improve their scores: ACT practice tests, ACT review sessions, and the use of an online training program called Shmoop. 

Building-level leaders from all six high schools reported using ACT practice as one way to improve composite ACT school scores. The amount of time and frequency the practice was conducted varied by school, but a common theme was the use of ACT practice exams. The principal from high school A reported an emphasis had been made to “infuse ACT practice questions into our daily warm-ups for students in eleventh-grade English and math courses.” Additionally, the school gave students in ninth, tenth, and eleventh grades ACT practice tests in order to prepare students for the real test. The principal from high school D also said his school prepared students early for the ACT through the use of practice assessments for ninth, tenth, and eleventh grades. “Beginning in 2005 when I started as principal, we started giving the PLAN [a test written by the ACT] to all sophomore students in the fall. In 2007, we added the EXPLORE [test] and gave this exam to our freshmen.” The use of ACT practice tests was common in all schools, but only schools A and D reported using ACT practice tests in multiple grade levels. The remaining principals in the study reported giving an ACT practice test one time per year to the junior class. 

Five of the six principals reported providing ACT review sessions at their school. The principal from high school C conveyed, “The learning center then provided a series of ACT preparation classes that students could pay for and take.” The number of review sessions provided varied by school. School B’s principal reported providing two sessions each consisting of two hours in length, plus the school offers a schoolwide ACT prep class for all juniors. School E’s principal reported offering “a four-day test prep during the state testing window for all juniors, focusing on ACT skills in reading, math, science, and English.” High school E also offered a 12-week test prep leading up to the ACT; 70 students participated by spending two-and-a-half hours a week. This was the most time any principal reported spending on ACT review sessions. The principals from schools B, C, and E reported using an additional tool: Shmoop, an online company that provides a variety of resources for teachers, administrators, and students. 

Staff professional development builds confidence. The principals at schools B and D reported providing staff professional development for ACT preparation. The principal at school B led staff through data analysis of ACT scores. “We compared our scores with scores from other high schools with similar SES [socioeconomic status]” as part of a staffwide effort to analyze performance for their school. Additionally, high school B provided support and professional development for staff on the use of Shmoop. The principals at schools C and E also reported providing professional development on the use of Shmoop. 

“I attended the ACT conference every year and picked up different strategies to share with staff through [professional development],” stated the principal at school D. “One of the major moves I feel that I made was educating the staff on the ACT—what the scores were used for, what the college readiness standards meant, and what the benchmark scores mean.” 

Communication to stakeholders is essential. The principal from school A said that communication occurred by “meetings set up with stakeholders to get around the table and explore strategies related to improving ACT test scores.” The principal from school B emphasized a similar approach: “We have increased communication and discussion among our students, teachers, and parents. I believe this has heightened awareness and has contributed to better buy-in and more seriousness about preparing for the ACT. This is a qualitative improvement.”

The principal of high school D said s/he believed an emphasis on improving instructional strategies and building relationships with students was an important action. Building-level leadership at high school B identified students with a high GPA but low test score on the practice ACT. “Each of our administrators has taken on six students for check-in and tutoring on the ACT. These are our target students,” the principal said. 

The principal at school E said hiring appropriate personnel was important. “I’ve had a huge impact in hiring a teacher with previous experience with Huntington Learning Centers, who provides our ACT tutorial. Many staff now have ACT awareness in their content area having taught the prep session.” 

Finally, the principal at school F reported the school would begin providing lesson plans for ACT preparation with substitute teacher plans. 

Implications and Recommendations

The findings from the study substantiated the importance of student training programs and teacher curriculum in ACT preparation. It also reiterates findings from Shaver (2013) that curriculum containing test-taking strategies has shown to be effective, and from Kretlow et al. (2008) that teaching test-taking strategies that focus on training on test formats, reasoning and deduction, time management, practice exams, and coaching can improve achievement on standardized assessments for all students. 

Sidebar: Making it Work: How High School Principals Can Help Improve Student ACT Scores:

  • Consider nontraditional ways to improve individual ACT scores, such as providing substitute teachers with ACT lesson plans instead of “busywork.”
  • Provide opportunities for students to practice the ACT prior to their junior year.
  • Target specific students to mentor in order to raise individual ACT scores. 
  • Establish positive peer networks for students.

To Learn More…
visit www.act.org

Jeremy Burmeister is assistant principal and athletic/activities director at Longmont High School in Colorado and a doctoral student at the University of Northern Colorado. 
Jennifer Fodness is a doctoral student at the University of Northern Colorado.
Dongfang Liu is a doctoral student and research associate at the University of Northern Colorado.