College & Workforce Readiness

ACT Scores Slip as Ranks of Test-Takers Grow

By Liana Loewus — August 30, 2016 3 min read
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Average ACT scores have taken a dip, in part because the number of students taking the college-readiness exam rose significantly this year, according to a new report from the Iowa City, Iowa-based testing company.

The decline in scores is not unexpected, say company representatives, because more states have begun requiring all 11th graders to take the test—so an increasingly diverse group of students is now receiving results.

“When you go from a self-selected to a [fully] tested population, you’re likely adding less academically able students,” said Paul Weeks, the company’s senior vice president for client services. “When you look at the impact, it’s pulling scores down a little bit.”

The score decline is also not as sharp as it could have been, some said. The average composite score went from 21 in 2015 to 20.8 in 2016 (on a scale of 1 to 36). That’s a slight but statistically significant drop.

“For an individual tester, even a full 1-point difference on a test could be the kid next to you has a cold and distracted you—it’s statistical noise, within the standard error of measurement,” said Adam Ingersoll, the founder and principal of Compass Education Group, a tutoring and test-preparation company. “But with national populations, almost any tick has some meaning.”

Sixty-four percent of 2016’s graduating seniors—or about 2.1 million students—took the college-readiness exam, up from 59 percent in 2015. The ACT has had more test-takers than the SAT, its main competitor, since 2011. (The trend is expected to continue when results from the 2016 SAT are out next month.)

The percentage of students meeting the college-readiness benchmarks, which ACT says indicates a student has about a 50 percent chance of earning at least a B in a first-year college course, went down in all four subject areas—English, reading, math, and science. The biggest drop was in English, in which 61 percent of students met the benchmark, down from 64 percent a year ago.

In 2015, 31 percent of students did not meet the college-readiness benchmarks in any of the four subject areas. That percentage is now up to 34.

Changing Pool

Ingersoll said it’s important to remember that the changes in results don’t actually indicate much about how students and schools are doing nationally.

“The pool of testers is changing so radically,” he said. “You’d need to have consecutive years with the [demographic] pool staying the same before you can draw conclusions.” Even then, he added, it would be tough to pinpoint causes.

Seven more states—Alaska, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, South Carolina, and Wisconsin—began requiring all 11th graders to take the test for the first time in this report, according to the ACT, bringing the total of fully tested states up to 20. (Some states are now using the test in place of other exams aligned to the Common Core State Standards.)

In all those new states, average composite scores declined. Weeks says an initial drop in scores is typical when a state goes to a fully tested population.

“But then we see a gradual return,” he said, pointing to Kentucky, where scores started to rebound after a few years of testing all students.

In another 22 states, composite scores increased this year compared with 2015.

Achievement Gaps Remain

Among black students, performance has been relatively flat over the past five years, while the number of students tested has gone up. For Hispanic students, average scores have dropped slightly—by one-fifth of a point—over the same time period, while the number of test-takers has risen dramatically, by 44 percent.

“Given that expansion of the testing pool often leads to substantial drops in scores, these trends represent distinct success stories,” says the ACT report. And because of the increased numbers of test-takers, thousands more black and Hispanic students are being identified as ready for college-level coursework than have been previously, it says.

But major achievement gaps remain between African-American and Hispanic students and their white and Asian counterparts.

Just 11 percent of African-American students and 23 percent of Hispanic students met college-readiness benchmarks in three or four subjects this year. For white students, about half met the benchmarks.

In addition, the report found that disparities between high- and low-income students may be growing. Over the past three years, composite scores for students with a family income of $80,000 or higher increased, while scores dropped for students with family incomes below that.

A version of this article appeared in the August 31, 2016 edition of Education Week as ACT Scores Dip as Participation Swells

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