Students Ill Prepared for College Math, Test Reveals

By Sean Cavanagh — September 16, 1992 3 min read

Only 11 percent of high school seniors who took the American College Testing Program test this year are prepared for college-level calculus, and one in four will need remedial mathematics in college, a study released last week by the testing firm indicates.

Even many of those intending to pursue math and science degrees lack the necessary math background, the study found. Among seniors who said they planned to major in subjects such as engineering, computer science, and physical sciences, only a fourth earned A.C.T. scores that indicated they could enter calculus, while 14 percent would need remedial math.

“Far too many of our college-bound students, even those planning majors in areas directly related to mathematics and science, aren’t getting the preparation they need,’' said Richard L. Ferguson, the president of the A.C.T.

The study was based on an analysis of student performance on the A.C.T. math test, one of four major components of the college-admission test.

The Iowa City-based firm released the study last week in conjunction with the 1992 A.C.T. results.

One of two major tests used by colleges in making admission decisions, the A.C.T. is taken primarily by students in the Midwest and the South.

‘Pattern of Stability’

Over all, the study found, average scores on the test remained stable for the fourth straight year, while the proportions of test takers who were minority-group members or who had taken a “core curriculum’’ in high school continued to rise.

The results showed a “pattern of stability,’' according to the testing firm. The average composite score in 1992 was 20.6 out of a possible 35, the same average as in the past four years and only slightly below the 20.8 registered in 1988.

By contrast, the 1992 results of the other major college-admission test, the Scholastic Aptitude Test, showed a slight increase in performance, reversing declining trends. (See Education Week, Sept. 9, 1992.)

As in past years, the 1992 A.C.T. results also showed that a rising number of students had taken a “core’’ high school program, and that those who did substantially outperformed those who had not taken such a program. However, the gap in average scores between the two groups--3.1 points--has shrunk since 1988.

The A.C.T. defines a core program as consisting of four years of English and three years each of math, social studies, and natural science.

Some 53 percent of the 1992 A.C.T. test takers said they had completed a core curriculum, compared with 43 percent in 1988.

In addition, for the first time, more than half of the Puerto Rican seniors reported taking the core courses, and the proportions of African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, and American Indians are approaching that level.

But Mr. Ferguson pointed out that, despite the increases, nearly half the college-bound seniors lacked the preparation needed for higher education.

“We must find ways to motivate all students to take the high school coursework that relates rationally and meaningfully to their post-high school plans,’' he said.

Minority Participation Up

The A.C.T. results showed that 832,217 high school seniors in 1992 took the test, a substantial increase over 1991.

The increase was fueled in large part by members of minority groups, who continue to make up a growing part of the test-taking population. About 18 percent of the 1992 A.C.T. seniors identified themselves as minorities, compared with 14.5 percent in 1988.

Over the same period, the average scores for minorities have increased or remained steady. The average composite score for American Indians--18.1--is up 0.5 over 1988, and African-Americans have increased their average by 0.4 points, to 17.0.

Yet, except for Asian-Americans, who continued to outperform all other groups, the scores for all ethnic minorities lagged behind those of whites.

A version of this article appeared in the September 16, 1992 edition of Education Week as Students Ill Prepared for College Math, Test Reveals