College & Workforce Readiness

Most Students Aren’t Ready for College, ACT Data Show

By Caralee J. Adams — August 21, 2013 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 7 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story provided inaccurate composite ACT results for certain subgroups of students.

Most students are not adequately prepared to face the rigor of college, according to the latest ACT scores, which also show that the average composite score on the college-entrance exam fell from last year.

That composite score dropped to 20.9 among high school students in 2013, the lowest in eight years. Since 2006, scores had been relatively flat at about 21.1, on a scale where 36 is perfect.

The report released today by the Iowa City, Iowa-based organization found just 39 percent of test-takers in the class of 2013 met three or more of the ACT college-readiness benchmarks in English, reading, science, and math. Nearly one-third did not meet any.

The benchmarks were adjusted this year, making direct comparisons to last year’s numbers difficult. They are intended to give students an idea of how prepared they are to succeed in a college-level course in a particular subject.

In the past five years, there has been a 22 percent increase in the number of students taking the exam, which ACT officials attribute to some of the overall drop in performance. A record 1.8 million students took the test, representing 54 percent of the class of 2013, an increase from 52 percent last year.

College Readiness: Below the Bar

A majority of students in the class of 2013—regardless of race or ethnicity—are not ready for college, based on benchmarks set by ACT Inc.


SOURCE: Act Inc.

“We are excited about the largest and most diverse group of students ever. It says really good things about the aspiration of students and participation,” said Jon Erickson, ACT’s president of education. “But I temper that by saying there are significant performance gaps among student groups and in subject areas that continue to be an alarming bell for all of us as educators and parents that will require additional attention.”

Test Accommodations

A broader pool of students in the class of 2013 took the test. Now, 12 states are testing more than 90 percent of their graduating class. That includes students without college-going plans and may contribute to the lower scores, Mr. Erickson said. Also, for the first time in 2013, students with disabilities (70,000 total) who have testing accommodations, such as extended time, were included in the overall reporting numbers, representing about half the growth in test participation. Their inclusion may also have contributed to the lower scores, he said.

College-readiness benchmarks were developed by ACT to predict whether 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. Students this year did best in English, with 64 percent achieving the standard. Forty-four percent met it in both reading and math, and 36 percent hit the benchmark in science. Just 26 percent hit the benchmark in all four subjects in 2013. (The English test measures punctuation, grammar, sentence structure, organization, and rhetorical skills. The reading test measures reading comprehension.)

For the latest report, ACT raised the reading benchmark up 1 point to 22 and lowered science down 1 point to 23 to match expectations for performance at a national sample of colleges, Mr. Erickson said.

Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, a Washington-based nonprofit that was instrumental in the Common Core State Standards, says the country continues to graduate large numbers of students who lack the academic skills to succeed in postsecondary education and training programs. “It’s been the same news for a long time. We aren’t moving the needle,” he said.

Not as much is being done on a large scale as is needed to improve teaching and learning in high schools, which tend to be more resistant to change in the curriculum than elementary and middle schools, he added. “We need both patience and urgency.”

While many states are requiring more rigorous courses, actually ramping up the teaching can be different, Mr. Cohen said, who urges more effort to bring consistency and end-of-course testing. “States have taken the steps that ought to lead to improvement, but it’s not rapid, and implementation is less than perfect,” he said.

Opportunity Gaps

Gaps persist by racial and ethnic groups, with Asian and white students far outperforming African-American, Latino, Pacific Islander, and American Indian students.

The average ACT composite score dropped among all groups between 2012 and 2013, though Latino and Asian students improved slightly across the five-year timeline. For the class of 2013, the average score for Asian students was 23.5, for white students 22.2, for Pacific Islanders 19.5, for Latinos 18.8, for American Indians 18, and for African-American students 16.9.

The five-year trend, meanwhile, shows Latino students scoring an average of 18.8 this year, representing a slight increase from 18.7 in 2009. In the same period, Asian students increased their scores on average from 23.2 to 23.5.

“While it’s good that racial gaps have not widened as the testing population has increased, it’s still very concerning and disturbing to continue to see these gaps,” Mr. Erickson said. “They must be closed.”

Natasha Ushomirsky, a K-12 policy and research analyst at the Education Trust, a Washington-based group that promotes high achievement for all students, says it’s good news that far more students are taking the test, including students of color, but the bad news is that results have remained flat.

“We know that gaps in achievement come down to gaps in learning opportunities,” she said. “We need to figure out how to give all students the same opportunity to learn.” Students of color are less likely to have access to the most rigorous courses, which the report clearly links to better ACT scores, Ms. Ushomirsky noted. In those classes, students can learn to problem-solve and confront challenges that are skills intertwined with academic preparation, she added.

The report shows that African-American and American Indian students were the least likely of any group to take a core curriculum—four years of English and three each of math, science, and social studies—in high school by 2013.

While there is hope that the common-core standards have the potential to improve instruction and outcomes for students, adopting them is not enough, Ms. Ushomirsky said. Teachers need support, professional development, and materials to make sure students can meet the new standards.

Awareness of the ACT is spreading, but the highest concentration of test-takers still tends to be in the Midwest and South with the lowest percentage of students taking the test in the Northeast and on the West Coast. Unlike the SAT college-entrance exam, the ACT includes science and is considered more reflective of the high school curriculum.

At the Core

Not surprisingly, students with higher ACT scores were more likely to have taken more core-curriculum courses in high school than those who did not take a core curriculum.

Robert Rothman, a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education in Washington, which promotes high school improvement efforts, says the results of the recent report are “worrisome” because fewer students may be deemed eligible for college admission. “There needs to be a more concerted effort on improving high schools,” said Mr. Rothman, adding that the reform emphasis in the past decade has been on elementary and middle schools, while high schools have been left behind.

One ‘Puzzle’ Piece

Colleges are interested in the latest average ACT scores, but they are more focused on the individual and put all the information about a student in context when making admissions decisions, said Jim Rawlins, the president of the National Association of College Admission Counseling and the director of admissions at the University of Oregon in Eugene, where ACT scores for incoming freshmen are typically 22 to 27.

“Test scores, as I often tell students, as much as we want them to take [tests] seriously and it’s important to us, [represent] four or five hours out of their life,” he said. “That’s a piece of a puzzle along with the GPA that represents four years of their life, the class choices they’ve made, and how they’ve done across those different pieces of study.”

Mr. Rawlins said he is concerned about bringing unprepared students to campus, but the ACT is not the definitive way to determine their success in college. Scores may be a result of what’s available to students in high school and not their potential. “They may have raw talent and raw academic ability that doesn’t show up in a particular way,” he said. “Once we get them here and in the right environment, they can shine.”

To improve student scores, the ACT report notes that implementation of the common standards “must be a catalyst for aligning all aspects of state and local systems to college and career readiness.” It also supports the infusion of a college-going culture in high schools, rigorous standards, and early academic intervention to help struggling students.

A version of this article appeared in the August 28, 2013 edition of Education Week as Most Students Aren’t Ready for College, ACT Data Show


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