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ACT Scores Dip Slightly as Participation Soars

By Scott J. Cech — August 13, 2008 5 min read

Despite a whopping 9 percent increase over last year in the number of students taking the ACT, scores on the college-entrance exam from the class of 2008 dipped only slightly.

Among this year’s 1.42 million ACT test-takers, up from just over 1.3 million last year, the average composite score was 21.1 on a scale of 1 to 36—a decrease of one-tenth of a point from last year.

“This drop isn’t a surprise to us, given the expanded base of test-takers,” Cynthia B. Schmeiser, the president and chief operating officer of the education division of the Iowa City, Iowa-based ACT Inc., the nonprofit test-maker that owns the ACT, said in a conference call with reporters Aug. 12. “Given the change in the composition of the testing pool, we think this result is relatively encouraging.”

The growth in the testing pool was fueled in part by Michigan’s move last year to join Colorado and Illinois in making the ACT part of its mandatory statewide assessment system for 11th graders. The result was a net gain of nearly 46,000 more ACT-takers in Michigan’s graduating class compared with last year.

“The annual gain of 121,000 test-takers ... is huge and unprecedented, even allowing for the mandatory administration of the test in Michigan,” said Robert Schaeffer, a spokesman for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a Cambridge, Mass.-based testing-watchdog group.

Catching Up With SAT?

Ms. Schmeiser attributed the growth not associated with Michigan to “organic” participation increases in the Midwest and the South—the ACT’s traditional strongholds—and also to growth on both coasts, which have traditionally been the home turf of the rival SAT.

Much of the growth can also be chalked up to the raw numbers of college-going young people. ACT test-takers represented 43 percent of all high school graduates nationally this year—up from 42 percent in 2007 and 40 percent in 2006.

Five-Year Trends for ACT-Tested Graduates

The average score on the ACT college-entrance exam has risen from 20.9 to 21.1 on a 36-point scale since 2004, even as the racial and ethnic make-up of the ACT-taking graduating class has changed.

01ACT c1s

SOURCE: ACT Inc.

“The number of students moving through the college-admission process has increased steadily each year over the past decade, so it wouldn’t surprise me if there were a fundamental increase due to the demographic bulge,” said David Hawkins, the director of public policy for the National Association for College Admission Counseling, an Alexandria, Va.-based group that represents more than 20,000 secondary school counselors and college-admissions officers.

The number of SAT-takers among this year’s graduating class won’t be known until Aug. 26, when the New York City-based College Board is due to release its totals. But if the SAT’s slower rate of growth in recent years continues, Mr. Shaeffer said, using a rental-car-company comparison, “Avis has almost caught up with Hertz. The longtime number two is finally breathing down the neck of the longtime number one.”

Among last year’s graduating class, 1.49 million students took SAT tests, excluding specific SAT subject-matter tests, roughly 70,000 more than the total number of ACT-taking members of the class of 2008.

The gap between participation in the two tests may narrow further next year, when Kentucky and Wyoming begin administering the ACT statewide as part of their assessment programs.

Wyoming students will have the option of taking the ACT or ACT’s WorkKeys exam of workforce skills. According to the College Board, the SAT is required statewide only in Maine, where it serves as the state’s main assessment of 11th graders.

Participation in the ACT has grown 21 percent in the past four years; the exam is taken by the majority of high school graduates in 26 states, according to the test company.

The ACT, unlike the SAT, bases its questions on the results of a periodic survey of the skills taught by high school teachers and the expectations of entry-level college courses. ACT-takers are graded on four mandatory sections of the exam—English, mathematics, reading, and science—and on an optional writing section if students participate in it.

More Minority Test-Takers

In line with the previous five years, ACT scores for this graduating class shifted only incrementally across all racial and ethnic groups.

The stability of the scores is notable, given the large increases in the participation levels of African-Americans and Hispanics, who have historically scored lowest on the exam among the self-identified racial and ethnic groups. Among this year’s graduating class, the number of African-American ACT-takers increased 17 percent over last year, to about 178,000. The number of Hispanic ACT-takers in the class of 2008 jumped 23 percent, to about 115,000.

“Historically, as the diversity deepens, you expect scores to decline,” said Mr. Shaeffer of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing.

While saying he was leery of making year-to-year comparisons of test scores that budge only fractionally, he noted: “It’s a good sign that scores remain stable or went up slightly.”

Mr. Hawkins, of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, seconded that opinion, but sounded a more cautious note.

“One hopes that it’s a measure of college readiness—that there are more students that are college-eligible that haven’t been applying that this test is reaching,” he said.

Readiness Measures Flat

Scores were mostly flat on what ACT Inc. calls its college-readiness benchmarks: the minimum score needed on an ACT subject-area test to indicate a 75 percent chance of earning a C or higher grade on a corresponding for-credit college course.

The percentage of ACT-takers in the class of 2008 meeting college-readiness benchmarks stayed steady in math, reading, and science at 43 percent, 53 percent, and 28 percent, respectively.

Only in English, in which the proportion of test-takers meeting the benchmark dropped 1 percentage point, to 68 percent, was there a decrease. But that was enough to draw a pointed remark from U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings.

“This is unacceptable when 90 percent of the fastest-growing jobs require at least some postsecondary education,” she said in a statement.

As in past years, ACT officials this year highlighted what they perceive as schools’ insufficient commitment to what the organization deems a core college-preparatory curriculum—four years of English and three years each of math, science, and social studies—and as a lack of rigor in high school courses.

About three in 10 ACT-tested graduates reported taking less than that core curriculum in high school. And those who did were not necessarily high scorers on corresponding exams.

Among the 2008 graduates who took the minimum core curriculum in English, only 68 percent met the ACT’s college-readiness benchmark in English. Only 14 percent of the class of 2008 who took the minimum core coursework in math met the math benchmark.

“We’re still seeing a lot of evidence that the core courses they’re taking are not rigorous enough,” said Ms. Schmeiser. “We’ve still got a lot of work to do.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 27, 2008 edition of Education Week as ACT Scores Dip Slightly as Participation Soars

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