Assessment

ACT Deems More Students College-Ready

By Catherine Gewertz — August 17, 2011 4 min read

The proportion of American students meeting all four of the ACT’s college-readiness benchmarks continued to rise this year, driven largely by improvements in performance on the mathematics and science portions of the exam, according to data released last week.

The annual report from ACT, issued Aug. 17, examines the scores of students in the 2011 graduating class who took that college-entrance exam at some point in high school. This year’s report shows that 25 percent of those students produced scores in English, reading, math, and science that correlate with higher chances of earning B’s or C’s in entry-level college courses. That figure has grown steadily in recent years; it was 21 percent in 2005.

Much of the growth was the result of improvements on the math and science portions of the exam. In each of those areas, the proportion of students meeting the college-readiness benchmarks has risen 2 percentage points in the last five years.

The flip side of the good news, however, was also clear: Three-quarters of U.S. students fall short of the ACT’s definition of being prepared for a university education in all four subjects. And while two-thirds met the mark in English and half did in reading, those numbers are falling or flatlining, not rising.

Slow Progress

Even the math and science scores, while rising, show a long road ahead: More than half the students who took the ACT fell short of the college-readiness benchmark in math, and an average of seven in 10 fell short of it in science.

Class of 2011

The average composite score on the ACT has been flat since 2007. One-quarter of the test-takers in the class of 2011 met college-readiness benchmarks in all four areas of the test, driven largely by improvements in the math and science scores.

01act c1s

SOURCE: ACT Inc.

“We are optimistic that there is growth happening in the continual increase, even a tick at a time, in the overall college readiness of students. It’s a great sign, especially as the population [of ACT test-takers] gets more diverse and larger,” said Jon L. Erickson, the ACT’s senior vice president for educational services. “But I’ll temper that by saying we need to accelerate the pace. It will take us too long at a tick at a time.”

Mr. Erickson credited a national focus on career- and college-readiness, and on the importance of science, technology, engineering, and math—the so-called STEM fields—for some of the improvement in ACT scores. More students, nearly three-quarters, are also taking what the Iowa City, Iowa-based company calls a “core curriculum”: four years of English and three each of social studies, science, and math. Students who take such a course sequence do better on the corresponding exams, Mr. Erickson noted.

Those who take three years of math, for instance, are nearly six times more likely to meet the college-readiness benchmark in that subject as those who don’t, according to ACT data. But taking a core curriculum is no guarantee of stellar exam performance, either, a possible reflection of the widely recognized variation in course content and rigor. Only one-third of the students who took three years of science met the science benchmark.

Expansion Seen

Students from minority ethnic and racial groups are taking the ACT in increasing numbers, according to the data. That trend could suggest greater college awareness among minority students, or it could reflect the racial and ethnic composition of states that are using the ACT more widely. Hispanic student participation has grown 116 percent in the last five years, Asian participation 59 percent, and African-American participation 47 percent, compared with 26 percent among white students.

But troubling gaps persist, something Mr. Erickson said “reflects the inequity of the rigor of the curriculum and of school systems as a whole.” Only 4 percent of African-American students met the ACT’s college-readiness benchmarks in all four subjects, for instance, compared with 11 percent of Hispanic students, 31 percent of white students, and 41 percent of Asian students.

The ACT continues to gain popularity relative to the College Board’s SAT. Last year marked the first time that more students took the ACT than the rival SAT, according to the figures traditionally cited by the two organizations. Whether that edge eroded in 2011 isn’t known yet, since the College Board isn’t scheduled to release its annual score and participation report until next month. (“Few Changes on SAT Posted by Class of 2010,” September 20, 2010.)

In the class of 2011, more students took the ACT than ever before: 1.62 million students, or 49 percent of the class, up from 42 percent in 2007. Most of that growth was fueled by the increasing popularity of the exam in states where the SAT dominates, Mr. Erickson said, such as California, where the number of ACT-takers has risen 60 percent in the last five years, and New York, where it has increased by 38 percent.

Some of the growth is driven by an expansion in the number of states that pay for or require all juniors to take the ACT. According to the ACT, eight states pay for all juniors to take the exam: Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, North Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, and Wyoming. Of those states, Illinois, Michigan, Kentucky, and Colorado require the test of juniors because they use it as part of their state or national accountability systems. And Arkansas and Utah pay for the ACT in any district that chooses to have all its juniors participate, ACT officials said.

The organization’s push for full-state participation “appears to reflect an organizational ambition at ACT to become the national admission test,” said David Hawkins, the director of public policy research at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, based in Arlington, Va. But whether the scores say anything more about students than do their course transcripts and grades is open to debate, he said.

“The more tests like this are used in a mandatory context, the more they’re going to raise questions about what the scores mean, what they add to the discussion” about students’ skills, Mr. Hawkins said.

A version of this article appeared in the August 24, 2011 edition of Education Week as More Students Meet ACT’s College-Readiness Benchmarks

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