Education Commentary

A.C.T. Scores Up Slightly for 1986; S.A.T. Averages Hold Steady

By Lynn Olson — October 01, 1986 6 min read

High-school seniors in the class of 1986 scored at least as well as 1985 graduates on the nation’s two major college-admissions tests, continuing what experts describe as a five-year upswing in performance.

Students taking the American College Testing assessment received an average composite score of 18.8, on a scale of 1 to 36. The score, up slightly from last year’s average of 18.6, is the highest of any class since 1974, officials with the American College Testing Program said last week.

Seniors in the class of 1986 who took the Scholastic Aptitude Test, the other major college-admissions examination, received the same average scores as those m the class before-- 431 out of a possible 800 on the test’s verbal section and 475 out of 800 on the mathematics section, the College Board announced last week.

The College Board also reported that the average of scores on the 14 Achievement Tests--one-hour multiple- choice exams in specific academic subjects-also remained unchanged from 1985, at 540 out of a possible 900.

Unlike the S.A.T., the A.C.T. measures students’ performance in the natural and social sciences, as well as m English and math. Average scores rose from 18.1 to 18.5 on the English section, from 17.2 to 17.3 in math, from 21.2 to 21.4 in natural sciences, and from 17.4 to 17.6 in social sciences.

Results Encouraging

Officials at both organizations described the 1986 test results as encouraging.

A.C.T. scores have been rising steadily for the past five years, said Oluf M. David.sen, president of the Iowa City-based A.C.T.

“We cannot pinpoint all the causes for the continued gradual improvement in A.C.T. test performance,” he said, “but quite likely some of the score increase is related to the renewed concern about educational quality.”

He noted that states and districts are strengthening high-school graduation requirements, “and the relationship between core high-school courses taken and A.C.T. cores earned is compelling.”

George H. Hanford, president of the College Board, aid that while average scores on the S.A.T did not Improve, the number of college-bound seniors taking the test rose by 2.3 percent between 1985 and 1986, to a little more than 1 million.

Normally, when the number of test-takers goes up, he said, there is a tendency for scores to go down.

The number of seniors taking the A.C.T. decreased in 1986 to approximately 730,000, down about 9,000 from 1985. David S. Crockett, the A.C.T.'S vice president o(public affairs, said the decline in the number of students taking the exam did not affect overall test scores.

Officials agreed that while A.C.T. scores rose in 1986 and S.A.T. scores remained the same, the difference is not significant.

“The trend line for both programs in the last five years has been on the up side,” Mr. Crockett said. “I think they’re consistent in that regard.”

The A.C.T. primarily serves students and colleges in 28 states in the Midwest, South, and West, where I many public colleges and universities require the test for admission.

The S.A.T., developed by the Educational Testing Service, is used most extensively by students and colleges on the East and West coasts, where it is an admissions tool for most private higher-education institutions.


The public has often viewed scores on the two college-admissions tests as a sign of how well American schools are educating their children.

The downward slide in S.A.T. scores between 1963 and 1980- when they hit a low of 424 on the verbal section and 471 in math--prompted widespread attacks on the quality of elementary and secondary education in the United States.

After scores on the test began rising, between 1981 and 1985, many saw the gain as a sign that the nation’s education system was turning around. This year’s combined average for the verbal and math sections, however, only returns performance to its 1975 level.

Average composite scores on the A.C.T. did not begin declining until 1970 and leveled off in 1976.

Officials with both organizations cautioned against attributing too much significance to the test results.

''There is a swing back toward meritocracy, if you will, in the country, and that’s where things are headed,” Mr. Hanford said. But he added: “I’m always against overinterpreting. You look at other factors, too. There are a lot of other ways of assessing the quality of schools than S.A.T. scores.”

Minority Performance

Minority students’ composite scores on the A.C.T. increased in 1986 by approximately 0.5 to 0.6 points for blacks, Native Americans, Mexican Americans, Orientals, and Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics.

But with the exception of Asian Americans, the scores of all minority groups continued to trail far behind those of Caucasian students.

For example, the average scores for black and white students, respectively, were 14 and 19.2 in English, 10.4 and 18.2 in math, 15.5 and 22.2 in natural sciences, and 11.7 and 18.6 in social studies.

Moreover, with the exception of Mexican Americans--1,000 more of whom took the A.C.T. in 1986 than in 1985--the number of minorities taking the test dripped. The smaller number of minority test-takers however, did not affect overall test scores, Mr. Corckett said.

Samuel D. Cargile, director of the A.C.T.'s office of minority education, attributed the improved performance by minorities to the increased number of minority students, particularly blacks and Hispanics, taking core academic courses.

“It is likely that completing more coursework in relevant subject areas has resulted in higher A.C.T. test scores for minority-group students,” he said.

Asian American students continued to outperform other students on the math portion of the A.C.T. Their average score was 20.8, compared with 18.2 for Caucasians.

Scores on the S.A.T. were not available for different minority group for 1986. Although both the A.C.T. and the S.A.T. include related questionnaires that ask students about their personal background and characteristics, such as their ethnic group, the S.A.T. questionnaire is being revised, making such information temporarily unavailable.

Mr. Hanford said, however, that the test data do not indicate any “radical” change in minority students’ performance compared with that of previous years.

In recent years, the College Board has regularly reported a large but narrowing gap between the test scores of black and white “students. But although all minority groups showed gains ins.A.T. scores in 1985, officials noted a “disturbing” decrease in the number of black students taking the exam that year.

Black students account for about 8 percent to 10 percent of all test takers for both the S.A.T. and the A.C.T.

Sex Differences

As in previous years, n.or women took both tests in 1986 than men.

The scores of both women and men on the A.C.T. increased, with the exception of women’s math scores, which remained stable at 16. Males continued to score significantly higher than women on all bot the English section of the A.C.T. and on both the verbal and math sections of the S.A.T.

“We just don’t have the information” on why men continue to outperform women, Mr. Crockett of the A.C.T. said. “Anything we said in that regard would be pure speculation.”

When registering for the A.C.T., students also indicate the majors they plan to enter and their possible career choices. The percentage of students interested in courses slightly in 1986--up a percentage point from 1985 to 7 percent. The two most popular career choices remained business and the health-related fields.

Similar information was not available for S.A.T. test -takers.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 1986 edition of Education Week as A.C.T. Scores Up Slightly for 1986; S.A.T. Averages Hold Steady