College & Workforce Readiness

2015 SAT, ACT Scores Suggest Many Students Aren’t College-Ready

September 04, 2015 6 min read
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More students than ever are taking the SAT and the ACT, yet recent reports on performance for the class of 2015 suggest that most of them are ill-prepared for the academic rigor of college.

Both ACT Inc.'s and the College Board’s test results for this year’s high school graduates reflect little change in college readiness among students. ACT has established a clear lead in volume of testing over its admissions-exam rival, meanwhile, and College Board officials are pinning hopes on a rebound with a redesigned SAT in the spring.

Last week, the College Board posted the latest—and lowest—performance on the SAT since it shifted to a 2400-point scale nearly a decade ago. Students who graduated from high school in 2015 had an average composite score of 1490, down from 1497 last year.

Scores decreased from 497 to 495 in critical reading, 513 to 511 in mathematics, and 487 to 484 in writing. That’s on an 800-point scale for each section.

Officials of the New York City-based board cautioned against reading too much into changes in the mean scores.

But they pointed to stagnant performance on the college- and career-readiness benchmark, which indicated that 41.9 percent of recent high school graduates were on track to succeed in college—a figure that has not increased in five years.

Trends in College-Admission Testing

High school students’ performance on both the SAT and the ACT has mostly held steady or dropped over the last five years. Meanwhile, the numbers of students taking each test has climbed—especially so for the ACT, which now has the larger share of the college-testing market.


Source: College Board; ACT Inc

“We aren’t moving the needle on college readiness, and that’s exactly why we are redesigning the SAT,” said Cyndie Schmeiser, the organization’s chief of assessment. She alluded to the spring 2016 scheduled rollout of a new test to more closely reflect what students are learning in high school and need to know for college.

ACT Scores Flatline

For the ACT, whose results were released last month, performance was virtually flat from 2014 to 2015, with the average composite score remaining at 21.

The Iowa City, Iowa, testing organization reported that about 28 percent of recent high school graduates met the college-readiness benchmarks in all four subjects (reading, English, math and science), compared with 26 percent last year. The percentage of test-takers not meeting the benchmarks in any subject was unchanged, at 31.

“We have looked at the same data, which seems like for decades [has been] moving at glacial speed, and that is not a good sign,” Jon Erickson, the president of ACT Inc., said last week.

The landscape of the admissions-testing market, though, is changing—with ACT gaining a bigger market share and both tests attracting more diverse students.

Last year, nearly 1.7 million students took the SAT, up from 1.67 million in 2014, the College Board reported.

About 25 percent of test-takers in the class of 2015 received a fee waiver to take the SAT, up from nearly 24 percent in last year’s class and 21 percent in 2011. This year, almost 49 percent of test-takers were minority students, compared with 47.5 percent in 2014, according to the College Board.

More than 1.92 million students took the ACT—about 59 percent of the graduating class of 2015—up from 1.85 million last year, marking an increase of nearly 19 percent since 2011.

“We are not there yet,” Bob Wise, the president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and a former governor of West Virginia, said of the college readiness of high school graduates.

“One positive note out of both results,” he added, “is that more students are taking the ACT or the SAT—and more students that have traditionally been underserved [by colleges].”

Growth in Test-Taking

As for the increasing popularity of the ACT, Wise credits ACT Inc.'s expansion with being in the market earlier with products that tested students in the lower grades and catering to employers who are looking for workforce-readiness indicators.

About one-third of the recent growth in popularity of the ACT is linked to contracts the organization has with states to test all 11th graders, according to ACT’s Erickson. ACT is gearing up for an expected surge in test-taking next year as four or five additional states are expected to contract with ACT (13 states did this year) and a few others are considering statewide adoption.

Currently, the SAT is administered during the school day to all students in three states and the District of Columbia, with three more states starting that approach next year, the College Board has announced.

After the 2005 SAT redesign, there was some confusion about how to interpret the new scoring scale, which hurt SAT participation, said Scott L. Thomas, the dean of the school of education studies at Claremont Graduate University in California.

“ACT was able to provide a clear and stable alternative in many states in which it held a minority position and was able to expand its market share in several states where it already enjoyed dominance,” he said in an email interview.

As the College Board introduces its redesigned SAT in 2016, and returns to its old scoring scale, Thomas said, there will likely be some uncertainty in the short term that could further boost the ACT.

But the new SAT could help the College Board over time, he added, especially as it leverages its presence with its Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test.

College Board officials are emphasizing their tools to expand college-access opportunities for students, such as using the PSAT to reach out to students who show potential to succeed in Advanced Placement classes, and partnering with Khan Academy to offer free online SAT practice tests.

Speeding Up Success

Jim Hull, a senior policy analyst for the National School Boards Association, said making sense of what the overall SAT and ACT scores mean to the nation’s high schools is not a straightforward task, which is likely why both testing organizations focus more on their college-ready indicators than their overall scores.

While high-school-graduation rates are at all-time highs, the stagnant performance on both tests points to a need for change, he said.

“Even if we are heading in the right direction, we really need to speed up the success we are having and prepare more kids not only to get into college,” said Hull, “but to succeed in college and really have them college-prepared so we can have a higher college-graduation rate.”

On both the SAT and the ACT, scores were lower for underrepresented minorities than for white students who took the exams.

While 61.3 percent of Asian students and 52.8 percent of white students in this year’s class met the college-readiness benchmarks on the SAT, just 16.1 percent of black students, 22.7 percent of Hispanic test-takers, and 32.7 percent of Native Americans did—virtually flat for all groups compared with last year’s percentages. (The SAT Benchmark score of 1550 is associated with a 65 percent probability of obtaining a first-year GPA of a B-minus or higher in college, which in turn is linked to a high likelihood of college graduation.)

On the ACT, just 6 percent of African-American students and 15 percent of Latinos were college-ready, according to the benchmarks for all four subjects.

Flat Scores and Inequalities

The static performance on the two admissions exams is disappointing but unsurprising, said Thomas of Claremont Graduate University.

“Despite years of efforts to promote college- and workforce-ready high school graduates, there remains a great deal of variation in the availability of resources known to impact a student’s ability to prepare,” he said. “We’ve made some important progress in reducing these inequalities, but they are quite persistent.”

Both the ACT and SAT are “highly problematic” as tools in the admissions process, added Thomas. He pointed to research showing that students’ high school grades and the rigor of the courses they take in high school are the best predictors of college grades.

The Alliance for Excellent Education’s Wise maintained that the current college-entrance exams have limitations, and that as educators look to build students’ creativity, collaboration, and deeper-learning skills, there may be a shift to relying on digital portfolios.

“My belief is that technology will quickly transform the assessment process,” said Wise, who noted that more than 850 colleges have made admissions tests optional for applicants.

“I think within 10 years, certainly, we are going to see a far different measurement service or assessment than simply a one-day test that we spend weeks getting our kids ready for and lots money for test preparation.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 09, 2015 edition of Education Week as SAT-ACT Performance For 2015 Graduates Called ‘Disappointing’


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