More Take College-Entrance Exams; Academic Readiness Is Questioned

By Sean Cavanagh — September 03, 2003 3 min read

A record-high number of high school seniors took the nation’s two premier college-entrance exams last year, though too many of those students are leaving the 12th grade ill-prepared for the academic rigors of higher education, sponsors of the SAT and the ACT say.

While the composite score on the ACT held steady at 20.8, out of a possible 36 during the 2002-03 testing cycle, the SAT I saw scores on its mathematics section rise from 516 to 519 out on an 800 scale—the highest math mark in 35 years. Verbal scores climbed from 504 to 507.

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View the accompanying chart, “The ACT and the SAT: Scores in Recent Years.”

Yet the sponsors of both tests, now near-automatic steps in the migration of millions of students into college, also used the annual release of their scores last month to highlight the lack of academic readiness for higher education among many seniors, particularly minority students.

SAT and ACT officials differed sharply, however, in their views of the subjects in which students were most lacking.

Advanced Courses

Officials of the New York City-based College Board, sponsors of the SAT, linked the upswing in math scores partly to the enrollment of more of its high school test-takers in advanced mathematics and science courses. In 2002-2003, 45 percent of those tested on the SAT I before graduating had taken precalculus; only 33 percent of such students had done so in 1993.

The test results are available from the ACT and The College Board.

By contrast, according to the College Board, only 66 percent of test-takers had enrolled in English-composition courses, compared with 79 percent a decade ago. Studies of grammar showed a similar decline.

“This year’s increase in math continues a strong upward trend,” College Board President Gaston Caperton said in releasing the results on Aug 26. "[V]erbal scores have not kept pace.”

Meanwhile, officials of the ACT, based in Iowa City, Iowa, said that significant numbers of their test-takers did not meet “benchmark” scores on the science and math portions of the exam, which would indicate likelihood of succeeding in first-year college courses in those subjects.

Among the 2003 graduates, only 26 percent scored a 24 or higher on the ACT science test, out of a top score of 36; roughly 40 percent achieved a 22 or better on the math test. Students who reach those scores have a high probability of getting a C or higher in first-year college algebra and biology courses, ACT officials said.

In contrast, 67 percent of students achieved the benchmark score of 18 on the English portion of the test.

“We’ve heard a lot of talk recently about the inadequacy of students’ writing skills,” said Richard L. Ferguson, the ACT’s chief executive officer, in releasing the results on Aug. 20. “However, it appears that the more critical problems are in science and math.”

Disparities in Preparation

Act officials said nearly 1.2 million seniors took the test in the 2002-03 cycle; the SAT I had 1.4 million test-takers in the same period. Both figures were all-time highs.

On the SAT, African-American students saw their average verbal score rise 1 point, to 431, and math scores fall 1 point, to 426. Mexican-Americans saw their average verbal score rise from 446 to 448; their average math score held level at 457.

Those scores significantly lagged the verbal and math scores of whites, who scored an average 529 on verbal and 534 on math, and Asian-Americans at 508 for the verbal section and 575 for math.

Officials of the ACT, meanwhile, found disparities in the numbers of black and Hispanic students who were ready for college-level coursework, compared with whites. Only 52 percent of Hispanics and 37 percent of African-Americans, for instance, showed that level of preparation, compared with 75 percent of whites.

Robert A. Schaeffer, the education director for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a watchdog group in Cambridge, Mass., known as FairTest, questioned the objectivity of the test organizations’ analyses of the lack of college readiness among high school students.

“Much of the behavior of both testing companies can be best understood through their marketing,” Mr. Schaeffer said.

ACT officials said their findings drew from research of high school graduates’ first-year success in college. Pointing out flaws in academic preparation offered school officials valuable insight, they said.