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More Than Just a Number

by Carva King, Ed.S., LDT

“No matter what, Mom, no matter how hard I work, I’m always going to be that kid who’s just a ‘dumb jock’! These numbers make me nothing more than a stereotyped jock!!” These are the words that Tosha Dewitt heard from her oldest son, Brenham, when he received the scores from his first ACT© following his freshman year in high school. Tosha and her husband Brad are the parents of four children with dyslexia: Brenham (20), Landon (19), Teegan (16), and Chadham (15). Brenham was not diagnosed with dyslexia until the beginning of 9th grade when, following a dyslexia diagnosis for both Landon and Chadham, Tosha had Brenham and Teegan tested just to “rule it out” since they have a family history of dyslexia. Brenham didn’t even want his mom to submit the dyslexia report to his school. Instead, he told her, “I’ll just work harder.” According to Tosha, his strong work ethic was one of the ways that he had learned to compensate for his previously undiagnosed dyslexia during most of his formal education. As she and Brad began learning to navigate through this new territory as parents, Tosha knew that she would not only have to advocate for the support and accommodations that her children needed, but that she would also have to tend to their social-emotional needs in the process. 

An important role of parents and educators is to help teens understand that their self-worth is not based upon a test score. Each young person is, indeed, more than just a number. However, the stark reality is that the vast majority of U.S. colleges and universities rely upon college entrance exam scores for admissions, scholarships, and course placement. How, then, do we reconcile our recognition of these children as  wonderfully complex, unique individuals with the necessity of being successful on standardized tests that may determine the course of their lives after high school? 

The Beginning

I first began working with Brenham to prepare for the ACT© during the Covid-19 pandemic. I was holding only virtual ACT© workshops at the time, but his mom asked me to work with both Brenham and his younger brother Landon in person. She is a special education paraprofessional at my school, where I have taught for the last five years in a grant-funded position designed to assist students who are entering high school with significant reading deficits. Together, we decided that virtual learning was not the best option for her boys. For several hours one afternoon, we sat around my kitchen table and began a deep dive into the format, content, pacing, and strategies associated with each of the four subtests on the ACT©.  At the time, Brenham’s ACT© reading score was a 15 - a score far below the national average and far below his scores on the other three subtests. It quickly became evident to me that this low reading score had significantly impacted his confidence. I knew that my job was not only to help increase his test score but to also help increase his sense of self-worth. 

The Shift

From the first moment that we meet, students in my ACT© prep program tell me that timing/pacing is the biggest challenge on the ACT©. Even for students with extended time accommodations, there is a built-in fear about how fast they have to move through the test. My immediate response to those initial concerns is that “Mindset is half the battle on the ACT©!”  How do we change a student’s mindset? One specific thing that I emphasize to all of my students is that accuracy and correctness “trump” speed on a test like the ACT©. Student: “I never finish all of the math questions!” Me: “So what? Do you correctly answer the questions that you do have time to complete?” Student: “I can’t read fast enough to complete all four reading passages!” Me: “So what? Do you understand the first three passages well enough to answer those questions correctly?” Student: “I have so much trouble with the narrative passage [which is the first one] that I spend too much time on it and never get to the natural science passage [which is the last one].” Me: “So what? If the narrative passage is always the most difficult one for you, why do it first? Let’s make it the last one you do. That way, if you run out of time, you are running out of time on the passage that you were going to miss questions on anyway!” 

The Breakthrough

The moment Brenham’s mindset shifted was the moment his real breakthrough began. One afternoon, I sat down with the raw score/scale score conversion chart from a previous administration of the ACT© and showed him that a student could have earned an ACT© Reading score of  27 on that particular test by completing only three of the four passages and getting all thirty of those questions correct. Math and science have always been strengths for Brenham, who is now a college junior majoring in marine mechanical engineering. Because of his propensity to be interested in and to excel in science, it was clear to both of us that he was always going to struggle with the humanities passage. So, he and I made the decision to not only re-number the passages, making natural science and social science the first two passages that he would complete, but also to not even attempt the humanities passage. We decided that he would read only three of the passages, spreading them out during the allotted time, and simply “bubble” the answers for the humanities passage at the end. (The ACT© does not deduct points for incorrect answers; students are awarded one “raw” point for each question that they answer correctly and zero points for each question that they miss. Therefore, students are told to never leave any questions blank.) When Brenham came to the realization that he didn’t have to be perfect, that it was okay not to finish all four passages, and that he could capitalize on his strengths rather than focus on his weaknesses, everything changed for him. By the time he graduated from high school in 2021, Brenham’s ACT© reading score was a 21, which was six points higher than his original score of 15. According to the 2021 ACT© National Profile Report, the national average score on the ACT© reading subtest was 20.9. Through his hard work and a shift in his mindset, as well as the support and encouragement of his family and teachers, Brenham overcame the challenges that students with dyslexia face when taking a timed reading test, especially one as significant as a college entrance exam, and walked away with a score that slightly exceeded the national average. 

The Question Answered

So, how do we reconcile our recognition of these children as wonderfully complex, unique individuals with the necessity of being successful on standardized tests that may determine the course of their lives after high school? In short, we don’t hesitate to think “outside the box.” Teenagers do not have standardized minds, yet they must take standardized tests. It is the responsibility of educators to adapt traditional teaching approaches to meet the needs of the individual child. Is it a traditional approach for me to tell students “So what?” in response to their worries and fears? Not at all. But it’s an approach that works because it forces them to shift their mindset, to release their need for perfection, to feel control over their situation at the very moment when they would normally begin to panic. It is also the responsibility of parents to work with educators so that we can think “outside the box” together. Parents know their children better than any educator ever could. Together, we can provide the support they need until they begin to see themselves as we see them - as wonderfully complex, unique individuals who are more than just a number. 

Official information about the ACT© can be found at

This article was originally published by DYSTINCT in the November 2023 issue of the Dystinct Magazine. The article can be accessed from DYSTINCT at:


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