COLUMBIA — When Ashley Bland was in high school, her parents often told her to work hard so she would be able to get into a range of colleges and and receive the most financial aid possible.
To reach her fullest potential, Bland reached out to her support system — her guidance counselor, her Advanced Placement English teacher and an older cousin who was in college — to figure out which study strategies were best for her.
"I've never been a straight-A or B student," Bland said. "I had to find out which resources worked best for the type of student I am."
For Bland, taking challenging courses and maintaining a high GPA was her ticket to getting into a good school out of state and earning enough financial aid to afford it.
"I knew that if my grades weren't up to par, I wouldn't get in anywhere," Bland said.
She said she wasn't as concerned with getting a high ACT or SAT score.
"It's just a way to make kids compete for the numbers," Bland said. "AP and honors classes are what prepared me for college. They gave glimpses into harder coursework."
Now an MU senior studying hospitality management, Bland said prioritizing her GPA paid off. She credits her competitive high school academic record with the scholarship awards she received.
Thirty MU students interviewed by the Missourian reflected on their time in high school and said that when they were preparing for college, they concentrated on doing well on high school coursework rather than studying for the ACT or SAT.
The ACT is a content-based standardized test frequently taken by students in the Midwest to measure college readiness. Students from the East and West coasts often take the reasoning-based SAT, which is also used by universities as an indicator of college readiness.
The MU students said their standardized test scores were not an adequate reflection of their academic capabilities. They said they thought the types of courses they took in high school and the grades they earned better indicated whether they were ready for college coursework.
Choosing challenging courses
It wouldn't be prudent for some high school students to jump into an honors-level or AP course if they were not prepared, but students need to be challenged in the classes they do enroll in, said Brett Potts, principal at Blue Valley West High School in Overland Park, Kan., who wrote his dissertation on the relationship among high school academic preparation, ACT scores and college degree completion.
Having a 4.0 GPA in high school wouldn't mean as much if a student hadn't taken challenging coursework, Potts said.
"Some students have a tendency to take the path of least resistance," Potts said. "We have to find a good balance to push students out of their comfort zones."
For Potts, whether students are prepared for college courses comes down to what classes they take in high school and whether the classes they take are "individually rigorous," which Potts defines as challenging each student's academic capabilities.
A student has to find a balance of rigor and success, Potts said. A student has to be challenged, but not to the point at which he or she is buried in work and not successful anywhere.
Evan Chiarelli, an MU freshman majoring in political science, said he chose his high school courses based on his individual needs and interests.
He took a lot of AP classes as a high school freshman and sophomore. He said he wanted to challenge himself and gauge his abilities to handle the course load.
Chiarelli said he chose classes such as AP Human Geography and AP U.S. Government and Politics to gain a better understanding of what he would be doing as a political science major.
When he was a high school student, he thought those courses would be similar to classes he would take at MU.
In his junior and senior years, Chiarelli said, he traded in classes such as AP English Literature and Composition for courses in debate and public speaking because they were more in line with his personal and professional interests.
He said those classes helped him improve skills he thought were necessary for political science students.
"Taking AP classes helped me create a necessary work ethic, and taking classes I enjoyed motivated me to work harder," Chiarelli said.
Chiarelli said taking such challenging courses in high school fostered his reading and comprehension skills and enriched his note-taking abilities. He said these transferable skills have enabled him to do well in his courses at MU.
Having these skills has helped him excel in classes where he "may only have three assignments that make up (his) grade," he said, and he is confident that he will receive high marks when the fall semester comes to a close.
Bland said that in high school, she prioritized the subjects she did best in and sought help in her other classes.
Math wasn't her best subject, but instead of shrugging it off as something out of her reach, Bland was determined to give it her all.
"I've always been the kind of student that would try and just go for it," she said. "I also had good, supportive teachers."
Bland said she often went back to her former math teachers for help in subjects such as geometry and trigonometry. Because she already had a relationship with these teachers, she said, she was comfortable going to them for assistance.
She said that when she was in high school, she would also take advantage of the tutoring programs put on by local college students.
Because Bland learned where her academic strengths and weaknesses were in high school, she said, she knew what to expect in her college courses.
Thanks to her rigorous high school coursework, Bland said, she hasn't been intimidated by the 10- to 12-page papers or lengthy reading assignments she has been assigned while at MU. She said she went to college having already done these things.
Bland said she has also made the most of her academic resources at MU and thinks she will have straight B's for the fall semester.
Assessing college readiness
Rather than rely solely on a student's high school curriculum and GPA to assess college readiness, universities have looked at the ACT.
To be successful in college, which the ACT defines as having a 50 percent or higher chance of earning a minimum grade of B in a given course or a 75 percent chance of obtaining a C or higher in corresponding classes, test takers are expected to achieve a median "benchmark" score of 18 in English, 22 in mathematics, 22 in reading and 23 in science.
According to the ACT's 2013 Condition of College and Career Readiness Report for Missouri, 28 percent of Missouri's recent high school graduates successfully met the benchmarks for all four sections of the ACT, compared with 26 percent of graduates nationwide.
Forty-three percent of Missouri graduates met three or four of the benchmarks.
The goals set by benchmarks on the ACT and by the required high school core curriculum are the same, Potts said. He said the core classes high school students must take, such as English and math, teach students the same subject matter that is tested on the ACT.
"Courses taken prior to the ACT have a greater impact on the (test's) composite score than any prep class will," Potts said. "If they consume rigorous enough coursework, that's the best preparation that there is."
On average, MU students have met the recommended ACT benchmarks, according to the university's fall 2013 enrollment statistics. Campuswide, undergraduate students received an average of 25.9 in English, 24.8 in math, 26.1 in reading and 25 in science. The average composite score was 25.6.
A small percentage of students applying to MU opted to take the SAT when they were in high school.
Because the SAT is taken by so few students, MU doesn't compute an average score, said Chuck May, MU's senior associate director of admissions.
Bland, who is from Indiana, said her high school encouraged students to take the SAT.
"Studying for the SAT stressed me out," Bland said. "I'm not good at self-teaching."
Considering students on a sliding scale
May thinks standardized tests such as the ACT are strongly indicative of students' preparation for college.
The admissions department evaluates a student's highest composite ACT score — or combined math and critical reading score on the SAT — when considering applicants, in addition to the student's high school core curriculum and class rank.
Under a sliding scale developed by the University of Missouri System, "the higher the ACT score, the lower the class rank needs to be," May said.
Students from high schools that do not provide class rankings are judged on a different sliding scale, which weighs standardized test scores and GPA in the core high school curriculum.
By looking at a sliding scale, the admissions department acknowledges that a student can be successful in high school and have a good GPA but have difficulty with standardized tests, May said.
Bland said she thinks standardized tests are poor indicators of college readiness. Although she said she can see how the test is used to set a standard measure, she counts herself among the students who are at a disadvantage because of poor test-taking skills.
Keri Johnson, a home-schooled high school senior in Columbia, sees both the good and the bad in the ACT. She has taken the test three times.
If a student doesn't know the material on the test, it's a given that he or she will do poorly, Johnson said. She said she thinks that if a student gets an average score on the test, he or she will be able to handle college coursework.
"I think it does do a good job of predicting how academically capable you are," Johnson said. "But if you don't take tests well or quickly — and are very smart — you're screwed."