College & Workforce Readiness

ACT Finds Most Students Still Not Ready for College

By Caralee J. Adams — August 22, 2012 4 min read
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Student performance on the ACT essentially held steady this year, with slight improvement shown in the math and science parts of the college-entrance exam.

Still, 60 percent of the class of 2012 that took the test failed to meet benchmarks in two of the four subjects tested, putting them in jeopardy of failing in their pursuit of a college degree and careers.

The Condition of College and Career Readiness 2012, released today by the Iowa City, Iowa-based nonprofit testing organization ACT Inc., includes performance information from students in the spring graduating class who took the ACT as sophomores, juniors, or seniors. This year, 1.67 million seniors or 52 percent of the U.S. graduating class took the exam.

“I was hoping with the focus [in the education community] on career and college readiness, we’d start to see a more dramatic improvement. We are still early in that,” said ACT President Jon Erickson. A greater focus on career and college standards and more attention to teacher professional development are encouraging signs, he added, but the output from a graduating class is not apparent yet.

Ready for College?

Large portions of seniors who took the ACT this past school year were unprepared for college, according to the testing organization.

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCE: Act Inc.

The average composite score was 21.1—the same as it has been for the past five years. A perfect score is 36.

ACT Inc. has set “college-readiness benchmarks” in the four subjects it tests: English/language arts, reading, mathematics, and science. That is the measure needed to predict a student has a 75 percent chance of earning a C or higher or a 50 percent chance of earning a B or higher in a typical first-year college course.

In this year’s report, 25 percent of all tested high school graduates met the mark in all four subjects—the same percentage as last year. It had steadily climbed in the previous three years.

Fifteen percent of the test-takers met one subject benchmark, 17 percent met two, and 15 percent met three. Twenty-eight percent failed to meet the minimum standard in any area.

STEM Payoff?

Emphasis on STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math—curriculum has helped bump performance on the math and science sections of the test, according to Mr. Erickson. In 2008, 43 percent of students met the math benchmark; by 2012, it was 46 percent. In science, scores rose from 28 percent meeting the standard in 2008 to 31 percent in the most recent report.

“Typically, math is the first thing to get closely aligned with a new standard,” Mr. Erickson said.

As in previous years, an achievement gap was evident among students by race and ethnicity. Asian-American graduates had the highest scores, with 42 percent meeting all four benchmarks. Thirty-two percent of white students hit all the benchmarks, while 17 percent of Pacific Islander, 13 percent of Hispanic, 11 percent of American Indian, and 5 percent of African-American students did. That breakdown is virtually the same as last year’s.

Christina Theokas, the director of research for the Education Trust, a research and advocacy group based in Washington, is encouraged that more students, especially Hispanic students, took the ACT, but the wide racial and ethnic gap in performance is a concern. “We really have to do better for African-American and Latino students,” she said.

To remedy the situation, students need to be better prepared through the pipeline leading into high school, and once they’re in advanced courses, educators need to ensure that those students are getting a rigorous experience, Ms. Theokas said. The ACT research finds that students who take a more challenging courseload are more likely to graduate from high school and perform better on the college-entrance exam.

For instance, only 8 percent of students who took less than three years of math courses were considered “college ready” on the ACT measure, while 54 percent of students who took three years or more of math were college-ready.

K-12 Assessments

Michael W. Kirst, a professor emeritus at Stanford University’s education school and the president of the California board of education, said the new ACT report can be misinterpreted and imply that American educational attainment is not progressing. “It’s very hard to move these numbers one way or the other, given the huge numbers [of students] that take it,” he said.

With a growing number of states mandating that all juniors take the college-entrance exam, Mr. Kirst said he wonders about the impact on scores. “You don’t know how hard students are trying in states where all kids are forced to take it,” he said.

The ACT’s Mr. Erickson acknowledged that the rising numbers of test-takers can have an effect, but at the same time, he said, required statewide testing (nine states in this graduation class) is revealing the academic potential of students who might not have considered themselves college-bound.

Mr. Kirst suggested that a better measure of college readiness might be end-of-course exams in high school or exams geared toward individual colleges’ standards. He also questioned what the ACT’s role will be when the common assessments are implemented.

The rival SAT college-entrance exam was taken by 1.65 million students last year. The College Board, which sponsors the test, tends to release its annual reports several weeks after the ACT. The SAT unveiled its own readiness benchmarks last year and calculated that 43 percent of SAT test-takers from the class of 2011 met the standard, indicating a 65 percent chance of achieving a B-minus average or higher in the first year of college.

To improve student readiness for college and career, the ACT report supports the adoption of the Common Core State Standards. It also recommends aligning standards to a rigorous core curriculum for all high school students and expanding rigorous high school courses.

A version of this article appeared in the August 22, 2012 edition of Education Week

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