College & Workforce Readiness

ACT Scores Virtually Unchanged, But Participation Hits New High

By Caralee J. Adams — August 20, 2014 5 min read
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Student performance on the ACT remained virtually unchanged this year compared to last, although more students than ever are taking the college-entrance exam—a record 57 percent of the 2014 high school graduating class, up from 54 percent in 2013.

The Iowa City, Iowa-based testing organization released its annual Condition of College and Career Readiness report on Aug. 20.

“The pipeline or top of the funnel is getting bigger from our perspective, which is a really good sign,” said Jon Erickson, ACT’s president of education and career services. “It indicates student awareness, participation, and aspirations are in line with opportunities and future growth.”

The average composite ACT score this year was 21 (on a scale of 1 to 36), a slight bump from 20.9 in 2013. In 2012, the average score was 21.1, where scores have hovered since 2006.

For the tenth consecutive year, ACT participation expanded, with nearly 1.85 million students taking the exam. This represents a 17.7 percent increase since 2010, even as the estimated number of high school graduates decreased by 2.8 percent.

(See related post for more on how statewide testing of the ACT has helped fuel the expansion.)

ACT volume first surpassed the rival SAT in 2012. The College Board reported 1.66 million test takers for the SAT in 2013, a slight decline from 2012. Student scores on the SAT were flat from 2012 to 2013. The SAT report for this year’s graduating class will be out in early fall, according to the College Board.

Mixed Performance

The new ACT report reveals something of a disconnect between students’ college aspirations and reality. In 2013, 87 percent of graduates who took the ACT indicated they intended to go to college, yet only 69 percent actually enrolled in the fall. Among 2014 ACT test takers, 86 percent said they aspire to college, but Erickson anticipates the same drop off in eventual enrollment.

This year, student performance improved slightly, as measured by the ACT composite scores, but looking more closely at its college-readiness levels, the results were mixed.

ACT sets college-readiness benchmarks based on the minimum score it projects students must earn to have a high probability of success in credit-bearing college courses (a 75 percent chance of earning a C or higher and a 50 percent chance of getting at least a B in a first-year college course in that subject).

ACT reports that in 2014, readiness in science rose 1 percent; in math it dropped 1 percent; while readiness scores for English and reading were the same as last year, according to the report.

Erickson noted that while scores were fairly stable, many graduates were close to meeting the college-readiness targets, which he said was promising. For instance, 15 percent of graduates were within 2 points of meeting the science benchmarks and 14 percent were within 2 points of the reading benchmark.

Just 26 percent of ACT-tested graduates met the ACT college-readiness benchmarks in all subject areas (English, math, reading, and science) and 31 percent met none—the same as last year. Performance was strongest in English, followed by reading, math, then science. (While the English section of the ACT focuses on issues such as punctuation, grammar, and rhetorical skills, the reading portion measures reading comprehension.)

When it comes to the rising number of students taking the ACT, Erickson offered no single reason, but said the test makes sense to students because it reflects what they are learning in the classroom, it includes science, and has “friendly policies for students,” such as no penalty for guessing.

Laura Perna, a professor in the graduate school of education at the University of Pennsylvania, said overall increased interest in college may be fueling the popularity of the ACT, along with a recognition that it measures something different because it is more curriculum based than the SAT.

As for scoring trends, if a broader population of students is taking the exam, then even flat scores are good because the testing pool would be more diverse and include students who perhaps did not initially intend to go to college, said Perna. However, if testing volume is up because more students who take the SAT are switching to the ACT or taking both, then the results are not as encouraging because the boost is among students who were already college bound, she added.

(ACT officials say they do not know how many of its test takers also sit for the SAT.)

To significantly raise test scores, Perna said more needs to be done to connect K-12 and higher education.

“We have made remarkably little progress in aligning expectations of high school with the academic requirements of college,” said Perna. In her research, Perna says she finds there is a “wait-and-see” attitude and reluctance to try any new policies until after the Common Core State Standards are implemented. And, from what she has seen from the rollout so far, Perna said there is reason to be concerned that the common core will not be the answer to improving student achievement.

Racial Gaps Persist

ACT is “still alarmed” that this year’s results reflect substantial gaps in readiness levels among various racial and ethnic groups, said Erickson.

While 49 percent of whites and 57 percent of Asians met three of the four ACT benchmarks (the same as in 2013), just 11 percent of African-American students did so, up from 10 percent last year. Among Hispanics, 23 percent achieved readiness scores in at least three subjects in 2014, down from 24 percent the previous year. This level of performance among Pacific Islanders dropped from 30 percent to 24 percent and among American Indians from 19 to 18 percent from the class of 2013 to the class of 2014.

Malik Henfield, an associate professor of education at the University of Iowa, says the ongoing performance gaps by race often are linked to under-resourced schools where these students attend. Students, particularly those who would be the first in their families to go to college, need encouragement to take rigorous courses because they don’t always see the relevance. Henfield suggests early exposure to career options and an understanding of college requirements might help students take on the challenge.

“You are expecting a child to understand why it is important to take more difficult math, more difficult science without helping them understand what is at the end of this more rigorous rainbow,” said Henfield, adding that professional development can help educators overcome their biases to see potential in all students.

To address the equity gap, Erickson said ACT is creating an office that will focus on underserved students. More information will be released this fall on those efforts, he said.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the College Bound blog.