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Scores on 'Enhanced' A.C.T. Remain Stable in 1990

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Average scores on the American College Testing Program test remained stable in 1990, continuing a decade-long pattern of "modest" year-to-year changes, act officials announced last week.

The average composite score earned by 1990 high-school graduates on the college-admissions test was 20.6 out of a possible 36, officials said. Although the act substantially revamped its test in 1990, researchers estimated the score is the same as that which 1989 graduates would have earned on the new test.

In the three years prior to 1989, the researchers calculated, the aver4age composite score was 20.8.

Such stability contrasts with the declines shown by scores on the other major college-admissions test, the Scholastic Aptitude Test. Releasing results from the sat last month, officials from the College Board noted that verbal scores had dropped to their lowest level in a decade, while mathematics scores remained flat for the fourth straight year. (See Education Week, Sept. 5, 1990.)

Act officials also cited as good news continued increases both in the proportion of minority students taking the admissions test and in their overall scores.

Among all students, the number who said they took a core curriculum in high school also rose, officials noted.

"This was not a year of great change," said Patricia A. Farrant, assistant vice president of the act "If anything, we have seen the trends of the past continue. But given that they were positive trends, that's a good sign."

Ms. Farrant added that the stability in overall scores indicates that "the decline of the 70's has probably permanently reversed itself."

The act, one of two major tests required for admission by most colleges and universities, is taken mostly by students in the South and Midwest. Some 817,096 members of the class of 1990 took the act in their junior or senior years.

This year's act represents a major revision from past assessments. Launched in October 1989, the "enhanced" act places greater emphasis on rhetorical skills in measuring writing proficiency and increases the number of advanced math items. It also drops the previous social-studies and science tests, while adding a new reading test that measures reasoning skills and science reasoning.

The new test also provides subscores in English, math, and reading, Ms. Farrant noted, in order to improve the test's usefulness in guidance and placement.

"From the perspective of colleges," she said, "we feel the scores are giving them information consistent with information they would like to have."

Ms. Farrant added that more detailed breakdowns of the data from the revised test would not show up in the national results until researchers had an opportunity to assess their impact on placement decisions.

Act officials also said they would begin reporting average scores according to the type of high-school program students follow.

"Our research consistently indicates that students who prepare themselves academically by taking a college-preparatory high-school program perform better academically in college," said Richard L. Ferguson, president of the testing company.

As in past years, the firm reported, students in 1990 who took a "core curriculum"--four years of English and three each of math, social studies, and science--did substantially better on the admissions test than those who did not do so.

Those who took the core curriculum, it found, earned an average composite score of 22.3--3.9 points higher than those who did not take such a curriculum. The score gap was fairly consistent for students from all ethnic backgrounds and ability levels, according to Mr. Ferguson.

The proportion of students, particularly members of minority groups, who had taken such a curriculum has risen steadily, Ms. Farrant pointed out. In 1990, 45 percent of test-takers had gone through a core program in high school, compared with 36 percent of 1987 test-takers.

The proportion of black act participants who had taken a core curriculum rose from 30 percent to 42 percent over that period, while the percentage of Mexican-Americans with such preparation had increased from 24 percent to 35 percent.

The report also provides evidence of the growing participation and success of minority students in the act About 16 percent of the seniors in 1990, slightly more than last year's class, were members of minority groups. Average scores for blacks, who comprised half the minority test-taking population, rose from 16.2 to 17.0 from 1986 to 1990, while those for Mexican-Americans rose from 17.9 to 18.3 over that period.

The gender gap also "seems to be getting a bit smaller," Ms. Farrant observed, although men continue to outperform women in math and women still do better than men in English.

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