Published: September 26, 2007

ACT Scores and College Readiness

Although ACT scores for the class of 2007 increased slightly from the previous year, the test’s producer argues that high schools’ curriculum still lacks the rigor necessary to adequately prepare students for college ("ACT Scores Inch Up, But High School Rigor Lacks, Testmaker Says," August 15, 2007). Less than a quarter of test takers were deemed college ready according to the ACT College Readiness Benchmark Scores. This Stat of the Week examines state ACT performance in 2007 and the types of college readiness policies that states have in place to ensure a smooth transition from high school to college.

ACT and College Readiness

Click on image below to view detailed scores and stats.

The average national ACT score inched up from 21.1 to 21.2 (on a scale of 1 to 36) in 2007, continuing an upward trend in scores that began in 2003. Despite this slow but steady improvement in performance, however, ACT officials caution that the college readiness of high school graduates is cause for concern. Just 23 percent of test takers met the ACT-established college readiness benchmark scores for all four subjects tested: English (18), math (22), reading (21), and science (24).

According to ACT, a student attaining those benchmark scores has at least a 50 percent chance of receiving a B or higher or about a 75 percent chance of receiving a C or higher in a beginning level college course in the corresponding subject (English composition, Algebra, Social Science, and Biology). The proportion of test takers meeting all four “college ready” benchmarks varied greatly from state to state. Massachusetts had the highest percentage of college ready students, with 36 percent of test takers meeting the ACT readiness benchmarks in all four subjects tested. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Mississippi had just 9 percent of test takers achieve that same standard.

The percentage of graduates taking the ACT exam varies widely from state to state, however, complicating any comparison of performance. In 2007, 42 percent of high school graduates participated in the ACT, with the highest percentages of test takers falling in the Midwest region. Regional variations exist in whether students choose to take the ACT or SAT as a college entrance exam, which contributes to variation in state ACT participation. Participation rates were lowest in Rhode Island and Delaware, where only nine percent of the states’ graduates chose to take the ACT. Colorado and Illinois had the highest participation rates in the nation at 100 percent. Both states require all high school students to complete the ACT exam.

In Quality Counts 2007, the EPE Research Center examined four policies related to college readiness: (1) state has defined college readiness, (2) state requires all high school students to take a college-preparatory program to earn a diploma, (3) course credits required for a diploma are aligned with the postsecondary system, and (4) state high school assessments are aligned with the postsecondary system. A majority of states did not have any of those policies in place for the 2006-07 school year. And no clear pattern between ACT scores and college readiness policies emerges for those that do have one or more of the policies in place. However, an examination of achievement and policy at the same point in time may not account for the impact of a policy that was recently implemented. In addition, states have been increasingly active in implementing college readiness policies, leaving open the possibility that this type of policy may demonstrate a greater impact on test scores in the future. Recent recommendations for changes to the 12th grade NAEP, if enacted, could potentially provide the state-by-state achievement data needed to further explore this issue. ("Higher Education Commission Near Unanimous on Sweeping Policy Recommendations," August 10, 2006).

For more information on college readiness policies, please see Quality Counts 2007: From Cradle to Career and EPE's Education Counts database.