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ACT Scores Suggest Students Not Ready for College

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A majority of U.S. high school graduates who took the ACT are entering college poorly prepared to tackle key subjects such as math and science, concludes a report by the sponsor of the nation’s second most widely used college-admissions test.

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According to the latest ACT national score report, released Aug. 17, there has been no improvement over the past year in the percentage of students meeting or exceeding the ACT’s college-readiness benchmarks in English, math, and science. The scores for the high school class of 2005 show that 68 percent are well prepared for college-level English, that 41 percent would succeed in college algebra, and that just 26 percent would succeed in college biology.

The average composite ACT score held steady at 20.9 out of a possible 36, the same as the previous year. The exam—a curriculum-based achievement test in English, reading, mathematics, and science—was taken by nearly 1.2 million high school graduates, or 40 percent of this year’s graduating class, at some point in high school. (By comparison, roughly 1.4 million students take the SAT, the most-used entrance exam.)

One of the reasons for the disconnect between high school graduation and college readiness, the report by the Iowa City, Iowa-based ACT says, is that students aren’t taking the right curriculum to prepare them for college. Also, the available courses themselves may just not be rigorous enough, it suggests.

Just 56 percent of the test-takers in the class of 2005 reported that they were enrolled in a core curriculum that includes four years of English and three years each of math, science, and social studies.

“The message does not seem to be getting through to students that if they want to go to college, they need to take more-rigorous courses,” Richard L. Ferguson, the chief executive officer of ACT, said while releasing the report during an online press conference.

One possible approach to confronting the problem, he said, is to identify as early as the 8th grade students who lack the basic academic skills to take challenging courses in high school, and then make sure those students receive the necessary help to develop those skills.

Minority Participation Rises

The ACT report has some good news on minority participation in the college-admissions test: The number of minority test-takers has risen significantly, with the number of Hispanic participants rising by as much as 40 percent since 2001, and the number of African-American test-takers rising by 23 percent during the same period. Minority students now make up 27 percent of all ACT test-takers, up from 24 percent for the class of 2001.

However, the report also notes a troubling trend that has continued over the last two decades: A smaller percentage of men than women are attending college. In the class of 2005, 44 percent of the test-takers were male, a figure that has remained unchanged for four years now.

Mr. Ferguson said during the online press conference that the trend is “one we need to get our arms around. One can speculate on a number of possibilities for why this is occurring, but it is obviously a matter of concern.”

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