College Readiness Concerns Raised by Latest Round of ACT Scores

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| Updated: October 30, 2019
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The nation’s high school students continue to struggle in the subject areas that are deemed essential for later success, according to the latest ACT results, which show another decline in performance across the four subjects tested, as well as a shrinking proportion of test-takers demonstrating they are prepared for college-level coursework.

The national average scores on the subject area sections of the ACT—math, English, reading, and science—as well as the composite score, all dropped slightly, along with the percentage of students hitting college- and career-ready benchmarks.

Amid the overall decline, students taking the recommended core curriculum in high school are maintaining the same levels of college readiness in those areas over the past five years. The consistently good performance of students taking the core curriculum sends a message to educators to start offering “rigorous courses to all students,” said Marten Roorda, ACT’s chief executive officer.

Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve Inc., said there is a noticeable achievement problem to deal with.

“This report is a helpful reminder that earning a high school diploma is not a sign of readiness for postsecondary success,” Cohen said. “That is an unfortunately stubborn fact.”

The national average for students meeting college-readiness benchmarks in math and English each dropped one percentage point, to 39 percent and 59 percent, respectively, in 2019, according to results released Wednesday. Scores decreased by a tenth of a point for the composite score, to 20.7, and for both English and math, to 20.1 and 20.4 respectively.

The test had close to 132,000 fewer takers compared to 2018.

Concerns about college readiness persisted with students in underserved populations, as only 81 percent of those students met one of the four benchmarks and 9 percent met three or four benchmarks.

White, Latino, and African-American students all saw a decrease in the percentage of students who met three of the four readiness benchmarks.

Art Sawyer, a co-founder of Compass Education Group, said these benchmarks are intended to help gauge how how prepared kids are for college.

“Which is great and of course helps ACT but doesn’t really help the students actually get into college,” says Sawyer.

Phillip Lovell, the vice president for policy development and government relations at the Alliance for Excellent Education, said that there is a disconnect between the high number of good-paying jobs that require postsecondary education and the low number of students that are prepared for college.

“We need to keep our eyes on the prize,” Phillip said. “This isn’t just the result of different students taking the test but we need to do better in preparing all kids for college.”

The decline in test-takers makes it hard to figure out if it was the students taking the test who were driving the declines in college readiness or if it was an educational problem, Sawyer said.

ACT Continues to Lose Ground

ACT reached a six-year low in the number of students taking the test. Almost 1.8 million students took the test in 2019 compared to over 1.9 million students last year.

Following changes in the SAT in 2016, Sawyer said, the ACT received a big bump in students as it was seen by more students as a second option for college entrance exams. In recent years, however, ACT lost statewide contracts in Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, and South Carolina. The ACT still maintains statewide contracts with 14 states.

States may like to offer their districts a choice, according to Roorda, which is why he believes some contracts are canceled or not pursued by certain states.

“I think that’s a good option,” Roorda said. “We can show the advantages of the ACT so the districts will choose our test.”

The ACT maintained districtwide contracts with 1,100 school districts between 2018 and 2019 but will have 900 more districtwide contracts for the class of 2020, Colby said.

Students will soon have the option to take the ACT in a new way. The changes, which will take effect in the fall of 2020, include students being able to retake individual sections of the college-entrance exam, expanding computer-based exams, and the ability to superscore in score reports to colleges, as Education Week previously reported. A superscore allows students to send scores from two or more test sittings, and get a score that shows a student’s best scores for each subject, across all dates.

“The reason why we are changing is to offer more options,” Roorda said. “To offer those options is really not about the numbers (of test takers), it is really to meet their students where they are now.”

Sawyer said one concern about these changes, especially the option for students to retake specific sections, is that not a lot of colleges have said they will accept section scores. While more schools may eventually accept those section scores, it is a big risk for students to take until it is known how many colleges will accept the scores, Sawyer said.

Roorda said many colleges are already superscoring manually, so he expects they will accept section scores. The ACT is planning presentations for colleges about the process, which Roorda expects will lead to wider acceptance of superscores.

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