LOUISVILLE, Ky — Just as Louisville’s high schoolers settled back into their physical classrooms this month, they faced a daunting task in their efforts to get into college.
On her fourth day of in-person classes at Southern High School, English teacher and ACT interventionist Emilie Blanton began administering the ACT to her students. The ACT and SAT are standardized tests, the scores of which colleges weigh heavily when considering applicants. As an interventionist, Blanton hyper-focuses skills like writing to tailor to what the ACT scorers (and colleges) expect from those ready for higher education.
Until last week, Blanton had been doing all of this test prep with her students in addition to regular classwork during what Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) calls "Nontraditional instruction," or NTI, or simply "online learning."
Out of the fire of a year's worth of online learning, into the flame of testing that could determine the trajectory of her students' careers.
"For some of my kids, this will affect the rest of their lives," she said over a Zoom interview. "The fact that they took this standardized test on the fourth day of school."
During the spring of 2020, and again in the fall, JCPS sent tens of thousands of Chromebook laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots home with many of the district's nearly 100,000 students to aid with NTI. Blanton said, despite that effort, the burden of poverty for many of her students — and those beyond Louisville — meant the technology was essentially a bandage on a far deeper wound. As teachers are known to do, she dug in and prepared her students as best as she could.
"I think we did the best we could building the plane while we were flying it," she said. "That is essentially what we are doing."
Dena Dosett oversees testing in Louisville’s public schools. She says the state has helped by allowing Kentucky students to take the test after returning to school buildings, and says her schools have worked hard to make this challenge easier for their kids — including her own junior who just took the ACT.
"Last week she said she had a great first day," she smiled. "That typically doesn’t come out of her mouth, so I feel very confident that our students are prepared and that our teachers are doing everything that they can."
Many colleges are making the ACT and SAT optional, including the universities of Louisville and Kentucky, and the entire Ivy League. But Blanton says what numerous teachers have been telling us all along: "It’s going to take years to make up for time lost outside the classroom."
"As we’re looking at colleges making promises of grace, unless they’re going to do it for the next five years I don’t understand why we’re only gonna wave it for one or two years," she said.
If colleges are sincere and don’t treat students differently who skip the SAT and ACT, does that not also mean everything else they’ve done in school — including this past extraordinary year — carries even more weight?
During our interview, Blanton pointed out yet another challenge facing a subset of her juniors. Those taking the ACT between April 12 and May 12 will be doing so during Ramadan — a holy month for the Muslim faith.
After pushing through online coursework and test preparation, and finally getting reacquainted with their classmates and teachers in person, Muslim students will have taken this monumental exam while fasting from all food and drink from sunup to sundown.
Add it to the long list of hurdles this generation of students has scaled.