School & District Management

Two-Thirds of U.S. 11th Graders Now Taking ACT, While Scores Drop Slightly

By Liana Loewus — August 24, 2016 5 min read
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While the number of students taking the ACT rose significantly again this year, overall average test scores have taken a dip, according to a new report from the Iowa City, Iowa-based testing company.

The decline in scores is not unexpected, say company representatives, because more states began requiring all 11th graders take the test over the last year—so a more diverse group of students is now receiving results.

“When you go from a self-selected to a [fully] tested population, you’re likely adding less academically able students,” said Paul Weeks, the senior vice president for client services for ACT. “When you look at the impact, it’s pulling scores down a little bit.”

The decline is also not as sharp as it could have been, some say. The average composite score went from 21 in 2015 to 20.8 in 2016 (on a scale of 1 to 36). That’s a slight but statistically significant drop.

“For an individual tester, even a full 1-point difference on a test could be the kid next to you has a cold and distracted you—it’s statistical noise, within the standard error of measurement,” said Adam Ingersoll, the founder and principal of Compass Education Group, a tutoring and test-prep company. “But with national populations, almost any tick has some meaning.”

Sixty-four percent of 2016’s graduating seniors—or about 2.1 million students—took the college-readiness exam, up from 59 percent in 2015. The ACT has had more test-takers than the SAT, its main competitor, since 2011. (Results for the 2016 SAT won’t be out until next month, but the trend is expected to continue.)

The percentage of students meeting the college readiness benchmarks, which ACT says indicates a student has about a 75 percent chance of earning at least a grade C and a 50 percent chance of earning at least a B in a first-year college course, went down in all four subject areas—English, reading, math, and science. The biggest drop was in English, in which 61 percent of students met the benchmark, down from 64 percent a year ago.

Ingersoll said it’s important to remember that these changes in scores and percentages meeting college readiness benchmarks don’t actually indicate much about how students and schools are doing nationally. “The pool of testers is changing so radically,” he said. “You’d need to have consecutive years with the pool staying the same before you can draw conclusions.” And even then, he added, it would be tough to pinpoint causes.

Statewide Testing

Seven more states—Alaska, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, South Carolina, and Wisconsin—began requiring all 11th graders take the test for the first time in this data set, according to the ACT. (Some states are now using the test in place of other exams aligned to the Common Core State Standards.)

In all of those states, average composite scores declined. Weeks says an initial drop in scores is typical when a state goes to a fully tested population. “But then we see a gradual return,” he said, pointing to Kentucky, where scores started to rebound after a few years of testing all students.

In another 22 states, composite scores increased this year compared to 2015.

More Students Scoring High and Low

The number of test-takers scoring at the high and low ends showed particular growth, noted the ACT’s Weeks.

“We’re seeing a bifurcation on performance,” he said. “Yes, we’re seeing more students meeting three or four benchmarks, who are probably going to do pretty well in college. But we’re also seeing more students who aren’t meeting any of the benchmarks, and that’s a little alarming.”

In 2015, 31 percent of students did not meet the college readiness benchmarks in any of the four subject areas. That percentage is now up to 34.

However, there was also a huge increase in the number of students reaching a perfect score, Ingersoll pointed out. Forty percent more test-takers achieved a composite score of 36 in 2016 than in 2015.

That trend has been going on for a while. In 2001, just 89 students received a perfect score. This year, the number was 2,235 students. (The number of test-takers doubled over that time.)

That’s in part because the reputation of the ACT has changed, Ingersoll said. “For years and years, the ACT was an afterthought. [Many people thought] it was not as prestigious, not as respected” as the SAT, he said. “The script is completely flipped. Now more affluent, aggressive families and their advisors are going for the ACT.”

Savvy parents may also be choosing the ACT over the SAT this year in particular, experts point out, because the SAT moved to a completely new test for 2016.

Black and Hispanic Students: ‘Success Story’ or ‘Bad News’?

Among black students, performance has been relatively flat over the last five years, while the number of students tested has gone up. For Hispanic students, average scores have dropped slightly (by one-fifth of a point) over the same time period, while the number of test-takers has risen dramatically, by 44 percent.

“Given that expansion of the testing pool often leads to substantial drops in scores, these trends represent distinct success stories,” says the ACT report. And because of the increased numbers of test-takers, thousands more black and Hispanic students are being identified as ready for college-level coursework than have been previously, it says.

But major achievement gaps remain between African-American and Hispanic students and their white and Asian counterparts. Just 11 percent of African-American students and 23 percent of Hispanic students met college readiness benchmarks in three or four subjects this year. For white students, about half met the benchmarks.

And some say that’s far from a success. “I think it’s actually bad news that more black and Latino students are being subjected to these exams that ultimately in the end tell them they’re not good enough and not likely to succeed at certain types of colleges and universities,” said Shaun Harper, the executive director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania and the president-elect of the Association for the Study of Higher Education.

In addition, the report found that disparities between high- and low-income students may be growing. Over the last three years, composite scores for students with a family income of $80,000 or higher increased, while scores dropped for students with family incomes below that.

STEM Readiness

The report also looked at whether students met STEM readiness benchmarks, which combine math and science scores. It found that among students who met the benchmarks, science scores have gone up, while math scores have remained flat. “It could be STEM initiatives are focusing a little more on science [than math], and we’re seeing the impact of that,” said Weeks. “That’s something we’re going to continue to look at over the next couple years.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.