Assessment

ACT Scores Improve; More on East Coast Taking the SAT’s Rival

By Vaishali Honawar & Alyson Klein — August 29, 2006 3 min read
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More East Coast students are opting to take the ACT college-entrance exam, its producer reports, with some observers attributing the trend to the ever more competitive atmosphere for admissions and the mandatory writing test on the rival SAT.

The test from the Iowa-City, Iowa-based ACT Inc. has traditionally been more popular in the Midwest and the Deep South, but this year a handful of East Coast states, where the SAT still dominates, saw double-digit increases in the number of ACT test-takers.

Slight Upward Move on ACT

National average composite scores on the ACT college-entrance exam have stayed steady over the past five years, with an increase this year.

*Click image to see the full chart.

Click to enlarge: Slight Upward Move on ACT

SOURCE: ACT Inc.

The trend was evident from participation numbers contained in the ACT’s annual score report, released Aug. 16. The report showed that this year’s high school graduates scored slightly higher on the ACT than the class of 2005 did, but that a majority of test-takers are still likely to struggle with mathematics and science once they enter college.

More than 1.2 million of this year’s graduates, representing about 40 percent of all graduating seniors nationally, took the ACT at some point in their high school careers, about the same proportion as last year. That number is an all-time high for the ACT, and the biggest participation boost came from students in New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, Vermont, and Florida. For instance, 7,823 New Jersey 2006 graduates took the test, compared with 5,902 last year, a 33 percent increase.

Companies that prepare students for the two national college-admissions tests say the rise in the number of students taking the ACT may be spurred by increased competition for slots at the most selective colleges. Since most colleges will accept either test, some savvy students now take both to see which they score better on. About 1.4 million students took the SAT this year. The composite scores for that test were due to be released this week.

“The SAT is no longer viewed as the only game in town,” said Kristen Campbell, the brand manager for ACT products at Kaplan Inc., a New York City-based test-preparation company. “More students are applying to college than ever before. … [They have to consider] how they are going to create the best application possible.”

Justin M. Dolecki, the director of high school marketing at the Princeton Review Inc., another New York-based test-prep concern, suggested that some students might have been turned off by the SAT’s mandatory writing section, which made its debut in March 2005.

“A lot of schools didn’t really pay much attention to the writing section on the SAT” in their admissions decisions, he said. “You can’t skip it, and if schools aren’t going to look at it, well … that’s a waste of time, especially if you’re not applying to the Harvards and Princetons of the world,” which are more likely to consider writing scores, he said. The ACT has an optional writing portion.

Mr. Dolecki noted that while the ACT may be gaining in popularity on the East Coast, it is not likely to eclipse the SAT in that region any time soon. For instance, while New Jersey posted a 33 percent increase in ACT-takers, only 8 percent of its graduates overall took the ACT.

“It’s a trend, but it’s not an overwhelming change in culture,” Mr. Dolecki said. “The SAT is still going to be here for a very, very long time.”

Falling Short of Readiness

The average ACT composite score for 2006 graduates inched up to 21.1 out of a possible 36, after remaining constant at 20.9 for the previous two years. The increase was the largest in 20 years, with the average score reaching its highest level since 1991.

The average ACT score of male students has increased by 0.1 point since last year, to 21.2, while female students’ average went up by the same increment, to 21.

But 58 percent of ACT test-takers nationwide did not meet college-readiness benchmarks on the math test, while 73 percent did not meet the benchmarks on the science test. Only two out of 10 students met or exceeded college-readiness benchmark scores on the four ACT exams, given in English, mathematics, reading, and science.

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings praised the ACT results, but said she was concerned about the academic rigor of the country’s high schools.

The ACT results “show a nation that is on the right track and moving forward, but far too slowly for the 21st century,” she said in a statement. “Unfortunately, less than half of all test-takers met the college-readiness benchmark in math; for science, the number was one in four. ... The ACT findings clearly point to the need for high schools to require a rigorous, four-year core curriculum.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 30, 2006 edition of Education Week as ACT Scores Improve; More on East Coast Taking the SAT’s Rival

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