College & Workforce Readiness

ACT Scores Virtually Unchanged, But Participation Is Up

By Caralee J. Adams — August 26, 2014 4 min read
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Student performance on the ACT remains virtually unchanged this year compared with last, new data show, 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 average composite ACT score for the class of 2014 was 21 (on a scale of 1 to 36), a slight bump from 20.9 for 2013 graduates, according to the Iowa City, Iowa-based ACT Inc.'s annual “Condition of College and Career Readiness” report, issued last week.

For 2012 graduates, the average score was 21.1. Scores have hovered right around 21 over the past decade; in 2004 the figure was 20.9.

In addition, little movement was seen this year on ACT’s college-readiness benchmarks, which seek to predict students’ probability of success in credit-bearing college courses. About 26 percent of ACT-tested graduates in 2014 met the benchmarks in all subject areas (English, mathematics, reading, and science), while 31 percent met none—the same as last year.

Large gaps in readiness levels among racial and ethnic groups also persist, the data show.

“High school performance has been flat for more than a decade,” said Robert Rothman, a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based research and advocacy group. “We’ve seen it on NAEP, we’ve seen it on [the global] PISA [exam], and now we see it again on the ACT.”

He added: “The good news is that graduation rates have gone up. Students are staying in school, but they are not achieving any more. Young people are not going to succeed in college or the workplace at the current levels of performance.”

This is the 10th consecutive year that ACT participation has expanded, with nearly 1.85 million students taking the exam. That represents a 17.7 percent increase since 2010, even as the estimated number of high school graduates has decreased slightly over that time period.

This is also the third consecutive year that test participation on the ACT has surpassed that of the SAT. The New York City-based College Board recently announced a redesign of the SAT to be completed in 2016. The College Board reported 1.66 million test-takers for the SAT in 2013, a slight decline from 2012. The SAT report for this year’s graduating class will be out in early fall.

Aside from the composite-score changes, ACT reported mixed results with performance on its college-readiness benchmarks.

Achievement Gaps

For the class of 2014, readiness in science rose 1 percent and dropped 1 percent in math, while readiness scores for English and reading were the same as last year. (The English section of the ACT focuses on skills such as punctuation, grammar, and rhetoric; the reading portion measures comprehension.)

While 49 percent of whites and 57 percent of Asian-Americans 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 Hispanic students, 23 percent achieved readiness scores in at least three subjects in 2014, down from 24 percent the previous year.

A growing number of states have contracts with ACT to administer the test to all high school juniors, a trend that has helped it become the most widely used college-entrance exam in recent years.

In 11 states, the ACT was offered during the school day to all juniors in public high schools in the class of 2014. Three other states began testing statewide in spring 2013. Five more states will test all juniors in the coming school year. In some states, the ACT has replaced high school exit exams as a threshold for graduation.

Also, in some states with multiple years of ACT testing of nearly all eligible students, achievement is rising slightly. Three states in which all juniors took the test experienced an increase of 0.2 points in their average ACT scores (Colorado, Michigan, and North Carolina) and another three (Kentucky, Tennessee, and Wyoming) saw average scores improve by 0.3 points, according to ACT. Scores rose 0.1 points between the graduating classes of 2013 and 2014 in Illinois and North Dakota, where all students also are offered the exam.

Deb Lindsey, the assessment director for the Wyoming education department, said the state’s improvement is not trivial.

“It represents an additional emphasis that schools place on assessment and a shift in responsibility to the school, not just the student,” she said.

Postsecondary Outcomes

Jim Hull, the senior policy analyst at the National School Boards Association, in Alexandria, Va., said a 0.2 change is “fairly significant” in one year, and a 0.3 improvement is “pretty impressive.”

Still, what that means for postsecondary outcomes is not as clear. Mr. Hull’s research shows that a 0.3 point increase in ACT scores improves the chances of the average high school graduate getting admitted into a competitive college by about 1 percentage point.

Katy Murphy, a high school counselor in San Jose, Calif., and the president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said she has mixed feelings about the implications of ACT’s statewide contracts that provide testing for all students during the school day.

For students who wouldn’t otherwise have access to the exam, statewide testing can be good, she said. But Ms. Murphy is concerned there is not enough being done to explain to students what the scores mean. She also worries about the time testing takes away from instruction.

Meanwhile, the new ACT report reveals something of a disconnect between students’ college aspirations and reality. For the class of 2013, 87 percent of test-takers said they intended to go to college, yet only 69 percent enrolled in the fall after graduation. Of test-takers in the class of 2014, 86 percent said they aspire to college, but Jon Erickson, ACT’s president of education and career services, anticipates about the same drop-off in eventual college enrollment.

A version of this article appeared in the August 27, 2014 edition of Education Week as ACT Scores Virtually Unchanged; Participation Up

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