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Narrowing the achievement gap

Partnership offers ACT/SAT prep course for at-risk students

By Mary Beth Leone-Getten

From eNews, December 1, 2005

For more than 30 years, a troubling reality in the American educational system has been the wide achievement gap in standardized test scores of students of color and those in poverty compared to their white and/or better-off counterparts. Perhaps nowhere is the achievement gap more pronounced than on the ACT and SAT college admission tests.

Since 1991, partnership between the College of Education and Human Development and the Twin Cities chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha--a national black fraternity--has found a concrete way to help students who traditionally have problems with standardized tests improve ACT and SAT scores.

An ACT/SAT review course gives participants a comprehensive review of the content areas covered on the ACT/SAT tests (math, science, reading, English, vocabulary, and writing) and are taught specifically how that information is presented in the exams. In addition, students can build test-taking confidence by taking multiple mock exams in a simulated test setting.

Led by Ernest Davenport, associate professor of educational psychology, the 11-week course meets on Saturday mornings January through March. Student participants commit to attending each session and engaging in a rigorous schedule of homework in exchange for teaching and mentoring from skilled volunteer instructors from the college and wider University, Alpha Phi Alpha, and the local community. The review course is free.

"This course was my first real experience of what college might be like and it was a very positive experience to be surrounded by people committed to helping me achieve," Tate says.

Although most participants are 10th- or 11th-graders, Davenport says he's had 8th-graders participate and he welcomes any interested student. "One reason [these students] score lower on college admission tests is the courses they take--or don't take--in high school," saya Davenport. By starting the review process early, Davenport and his colleagues can coach the students about their course choices.

While rigorous, the program is designed to be fun, including time for student interaction, work in teams that creates spirited competition, and pizza parties. In 2005, the program served 121 students from 36 local public schools.

A volunteer board of directors meets several times per year to determine the content of the review course. The board recognized that challenges for at-risk students don't end once they enter college, so now it brings in current college students from Alpha Phi Alpha who lead discussions who give participants valuable insights into the real world of higher education.

The program also has expanded to include information on study skills and navigating the often-confusing college admission process--sessions often attended by parents.

The ACT/SAT review course gives students a concrete way to significantly improve their test scores and narrow the achievement gap. Among students who took the course for two years, the average gain in SAT scores was 138 points. In addition, the program gives students contact with adults who are motivated to help them set and accomplish educational goals.

Jeffrey Tate is a former participant and then a volunteer with the program, and is now its current assistant director. He credits the review course for giving him the right attitude to embrace higher education. "This course was my first real experience of what college might be like and it was a very positive experience to be surrounded by people committed to helping me achieve," Tate says. "Because the course takes place on campus, with instructors who are professors and current students, it immerses students in the college experience and they, like me, begin to see their place in it."

From Link, fall 2005, the alumni publication of the College of Education and Human Development.