Federal

Scores on ACT Show Majority of Students Not College-Ready

By Catherine Gewertz — August 19, 2009 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Includes updates and/or revisions

Fewer than one-quarter of last school year’s graduating high school seniors who took the ACT scored at the “college-ready” level in all four subject areas, a finding that prompted the nation’s highest education official to renew his demand that schools do a far better job preparing students for college.

According to results released today, the proportion of tested graduating seniors who are “college ready” as defined by the ACT grew from 22 percent in the class of 2008 to 23 percent in the class of 2009. College-readiness levels remained within two-tenths of a percentage point of where they’ve been since 2005.

“We need to increase the number of high school graduates who are prepared to succeed in college,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement released through ACT Inc., the Iowa City, Iowa-based nonprofit organization that designs the test. “The recent increase in college preparedness on the ACT is good news. But our students need to do dramatically better to guarantee their future success.”

Class of 2009: Are They Prepared?

The average composite score across the four subject areas of the ACT has risen slightly since 2005. But fewer than one-quarter of the test-takers in the class of 2009 met college-readiness benchmarks on all areas of the test.

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCE: ACT Inc.

The average composite score across all areas tested—English, mathematics, reading, and science—was 21.1 on a 36-point scale, the same as for the class of 2008.

Leaders of ACT saw encouraging signs in the national test-score report. The pool of test-takers continues to expand and grow more diverse. There were nearly 1.5 million test-takers in the class of 2009, 4 percent more than in the class of 2008. Some of that growth is due to the fact that two more states—Kentucky and Wyoming—joined Colorado, Illinois, and Michigan in requiring all 11th graders to take the ACT.

The number of test-takers grew more slowly this past year than it did between 2007 and 2008, when the pool expanded by 9 percent. The number of test-takers has grown 25 percent since 2005. Since then, participation by black students has risen 41 percent, by Hispanics 61 percent, and by Asians 51 percent, compared with a 20 percent rise among white students.

Troubling Signs

But ACT officials saw troubling signs in the data as well. Jon L. Erickson, the organization’s vice president for educational services, said that while it is welcome news that more students, especially those in traditionally underserved populations, are taking the college-entrance and -placement test, their performance on the college-readiness benchmarks illustrates the need for better preparation, especially in mathematics and science.

While 67 percent of the test-takers in the class of 2009 met college-ready benchmarks in English and 53 percent did so in reading, only 42 percent did so in math and 28 percent did so in science, according to the test results.

“With all the focus now on STEM, it’s a concern that we see far fewer students meeting those benchmarks in science and math,” Mr. Erickson said of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

ACT, which is a key partner in a national, multiorganization effort to design common academic standards, determines college readiness by surveying thousands of high school and college instructors every few years to glean the knowledge and skills students need to pass entry-level, credit-bearing courses in college. Its research has pinpointed test-score cutoffs, or benchmarks, that predict a 75 percent chance of earning a C or better in such courses.

Mr. Erickson said a number of factors contribute to students’ falling short of college-readiness benchmarks. Too many high schools lack a focus on college-readiness skills, he said, and don’t “zero in” on key standards that need to be mastered. In some cases, high school students are not taking the right courses, and in others, the courses themselves are not sufficiently rigorous to impart college-level skill and knowledge, he said.

ACT data show that students who took what the organization defines as a “core curriculum”—four years of English and at least three years each of rigorous natural science, social science, and mathematics—scored better on the test than those who did not. Seventy percent of the test-takers said they had taken a core curriculum.

Robert Schaeffer, the public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a Cambridge, Mass.-based testing watchdog group known as FairTest, said the “stagnant” ACT scores reflect a failure of the promise of the federal No Child Left Behind Act to boost achievement and improve college readiness.

“Politicians can make all the claims they want that it is raising achievement, but even when there are improvements in state test scores, they don’t show up in college-admissions test data, or on [the National Assessment of Educational Progress],” he said. “So where is the beef?”

Mr. Schaeffer also noted that a FairTest analysis of ACT score changes between 2008 and 2009 shows little narrowing in the gaps between racial and ethnic minority students and their white peers. The ACT scores show only 4 percent of black students and 10 percent of Hispanic students meeting college-readiness benchmarks in all four subject areas in 2009, compared with 28 percent of white students and 36 percent of Asian students.

The College Board was scheduled to release its national SAT scores on Aug. 25.

A version of this article appeared in the August 26, 2009 edition of Education Week as Scores on ACT Show Majority of Students Not College-Ready

Events

Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Science of Reading: Emphasis on Language Comprehension
Dive into language comprehension through a breakdown of the Science of Reading with an interactive demonstration.
Content provided by Be GLAD
English-Language Learners Webinar English Learners and the Science of Reading: What Works in the Classroom
ELs & emergent bilinguals deserve the best reading instruction! The Reading League & NCEL join forces on best practices. Learn more in our webinar with both organizations.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Federal Low-Performing Schools Are Left to Languish by Districts and States, Watchdog Finds
Fewer than half of district plans for improving struggling schools meet bare minimum requirements.
11 min read
A group of silhouettes looks across a grid with a public school on the other side.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week via Canva
Federal Biden Admin. Says New K-12 Agenda Tackles Absenteeism, Tutoring, Extended Learning
The White House unveiled a set of K-12 priorities at the start of an election year.
4 min read
U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona participates in a roundtable discussion with students from Dartmouth College on Jan. 10, 2024, on the school's campus, in Hanover, N.H.
U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona participates in a roundtable discussion with students from Dartmouth College on Jan. 10, 2024, on the school's campus, in Hanover, N.H.
Steven Senne/AP
Federal Lawmakers Want to Reauthorize a Major Education Research Law. What Stands in the Way?
Lawmakers have tried and failed to reauthorize the Education Sciences Reform Act over the past nearly two decades.
7 min read
Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., left, joins Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., left, as Starbucks founder Howard Schultz answers questions about the company's actions during an ongoing employee unionizing campaign, at the Capitol in Washington, on March 29, 2023.
Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., left, joins Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., left, at the Capitol in Washington, on March 29, 2023. The two lawmakers sponsored a bill to reauthorize the Education Sciences Reform Act.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Federal Will the Government Actually Shut Down This Time? What Educators Should Know
The federal government is once again on the verge of shutting down. Here's why educators should care, but shouldn't necessarily worry.
1 min read
Photo illustration of Capitol building and closed sign.
iStock