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ACT Scores Inch Up, But High School Rigor Lags, Testmaker Says

By Scott J. Cech — August 15, 2007 4 min read
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The class of 2007’s ACT scores edged up slightly over last year’s, but the test’s producer warned that high schools’ core curriculum still isn’t rigorous enough to adequately prepare students for college.

The average national ACT score this year was 21.2 on a scale of 1 to 36—an improvement of one-tenth of a percentage point, and part of a slow but fairly steady upward climb from the class of 2003’s score of 20.8.

Scores released today were up on each of the four required subject-area tests: English, mathematics, reading, and science. Math scores improved by two-tenths of a percentage point over last year’s, to 21. English, reading, and science scores each increased one-tenth of a percentage point—respectively, to 20.7, 21.5, and 21. The average score on the optional ACT writing test, which does not count toward the composite score, was down one-tenth of a percentage point from last year’s, to 7.6 on a scale of 2 to 12.

Richard L. Ferguson, the chief executive officer of the Iowa City, Iowa-based nonprofit ACT Inc., applauded the five-year trend line, but said in a conference call with reporters Aug. 14 that the apparent lack of rigor in high school classes “continues to reveal cause for concern.”

“We still have a serious problems in terms of college readiness,” Mr. Ferguson said. While ACT believes that students taking the core curriculum should be adequately prepared for college, he said, “unfortunately that doesn’t appear to be the case, specially in math and science.”

Dan Fuller, the director of public policy for the Alexandria, Va.-based Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, called that characterization “more like a commercial for ACT products and services than an accurate assessment.”

“I believe that our schools can improve, but they don’t improve by people taking them down,” said Mr. Fuller, whose organization of 178,000 administrators and teachers works to identify and share sound policies and best practices in education.

The ACT is the nation’s second most widely used college-admissions test. According to Mr. Ferguson, just over 1.3 million students took the ACT this year—a record high, and an 8 percent increase over last year’s total. The number of students in the class of 2007 who took the rival SAT, developed and administered by the Educational Testing Service, of Princeton, N.J., for the New York City-based College Board, has not yet been released, but in the class of 2006, 1.47 million students took the SAT. Scores on the SAT for the class of 2007 are due to be released Aug. 28.

Racial and Ethnic Gaps

The class of 2007’s ACT results show a 2-percentage-point increase since last year in the proportion of test-takers who met or surpassed what ACT calls its college-readiness benchmark—the minimum score in all four subjects sufficient to indicate that a student has about a 75 percent chance of earning a C or higher in beginning-level college classes.

Among test-takers who reported having taken only the minimum core mathematics curriculum in their high schools—Algebra 1 and 2 and geometry—only 15 percent met or surpassed the college-readiness benchmark in math. By contrast, 40 percent of students who reported taking those courses plus trigonometry met the college-readiness benchmark. There was a similar jump in science among test-takers who reported taking physics in addition to biology and chemistry.

“These courses in many cases lack the proper level of rigor,” Mr. Ferguson said of the typical high school core curriculum. The solution, he added, should not be to force students to take more classes on top of their current loads, but “to improve the rigor in the core high school courses they’re already taking.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings expressed a mixture of encouragement and impatience with the numbers.

“While scores have improved in all four required subject-area tests, more than half of all test-takers still fell short of the college-readiness benchmarks,” Ms. Spellings said in a statement. “This is unacceptable when 90 percent of the fastest-growing jobs require at least some postsecondary education.”

Overall scores were up slightly over last year’s among all racial and ethnic groups except for African-American/blacks, whose average composite score dropped a tenth of a percentage point, to 17 on the 36-point scale. Students identifying themselves as American Indian/Alaska native, Asian-American/Pacific Islander, Caucasian American/white, Hispanic, and “other/no response” scored higher on the ACT, but gaps in scores among the groups on the test have remained largely consistent over the past five years. Asian-American/Pacific Islanders had the highest composite score, at 22.6.

However, ACT officials noted the large increase in the number of African-American students taking the exam: an 18 percent rise since 2003, outstripping the overall growth in ACT-takers by 7 percentage points.

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