College & Workforce Readiness

Most Students Still Not College-Ready, ACT Report Finds

By Caralee J. Adams — August 28, 2012 4 min read

Student performance on the ACT essentially held steady this year, with slight improvement shown in the math and science parts of the college-entrance exam.

Still, 60 percent of the class of 2012 that took the test failed to meet benchmarks in two of the four subjects tested, putting them in jeopardy of failing in their pursuit of a college degree and careers.

“The Condition of College and Career Readiness 2012,” released last week by the Iowa City, Iowa-based ACT Inc., includes performance information from students in the spring graduating class who took the ACT as sophomores, juniors, or seniors. This year, 1.67 million seniors, or 52 percent of the U.S. graduating class, took the exam.

“I was hoping with the focus [in the education community] on career and college readiness, we’d start to see a more dramatic improvement. We are still early in that,” said ACT President Jon Erickson. A greater focus on career and college standards and more attention to teacher professional development are encouraging signs, he added, but the output from a graduating class is not apparent yet.

The average composite score was 21.1—the same as it has been for the past five years. A perfect score is 36.

ACT Inc. has set “college-readiness benchmarks” in the four subjects it tests: English/language arts, reading, mathematics, and science. That is the measure needed to predict 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.

In this year’s report, 25 percent of all tested high school graduates met the mark in all four subjects—the same percentage as last year.

Fifteen percent of the test-takers met one subject benchmark, 17 percent met two, and 15 percent met three. Twenty-eight percent failed to meet the minimum standard in any area.

STEM Payoff?

Emphasis on stem—science, technology, engineering, and math—curriculum has helped bump performance on the math and science sections of the test, according to Mr. Erickson. In 2008, 43 percent of students met the math benchmark; by 2012, it was 46 percent. Science scores rose from 28 percent meeting the standard in 2008 to 31 percent in the most recent report. “Typically, math is the first thing to get closely aligned with a new standard,” Mr. Erickson said.

As in previous years, an achievement gap was evident among students by race and ethnicity. Asian-American graduates had the highest scores, with 42 percent meeting all four benchmarks. Thirty-two percent of white students hit all the benchmarks, while 17 percent of Pacific Islander, 13 percent of Hispanic, 11 percent of American Indian, and 5 percent of African-American students did. That breakdown is virtually the same as last year’s.

Christina Theokas, the director of research for the Education Trust, a research and advocacy group based in Washington, is encouraged that more students, especially Hispanic students, took the ACT, but the wide racial and ethnic gap in performance is a concern. “We really have to do better for African-American and Latino students,” she said.

To remedy the situation, students need to be better prepared through the pipeline leading into high school, and once they’re in advanced courses, educators need to ensure that those students are getting a rigorous experience, she said.

The ACT research finds that students who take a more challenging courseload are more likely to graduate from high school and perform better on the college-entrance exam.

For instance, only 8 percent of students who took fewer than three years of math were considered “college ready,” while 54 percent of students who took three years or more of math were college-ready.

K-12 Assessments

Michael W. Kirst, a professor emeritus at Stanford University’s education school and the president of the California board of education, said the new ACT report can be misinterpreted and imply that American educational attainment is not progressing. “It’s very hard to move these numbers one way or the other, given the huge numbers [of students] that take it,” he said.

With a growing number of states mandating that all juniors take the exam, Mr. Kirst said he wonders about the impact on scores. “You don’t know how hard students are trying in states where all kids are forced to take it,” he said.

The ACT’s Mr. Erickson acknowledged that the rising numbers of test-takers can have an effect, but at the same time, he said, required statewide testing (nine states in this graduating class) is revealing the academic potential of students who might not have considered themselves college-bound.

Mr. Kirst suggested that a better measure of college readiness might be end-of-course exams in high school or exams geared toward individual colleges’ standards. He also questioned what the ACT’s role will be when assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards, now adopted in 46 states, go into effect.

The College Board, which sponsors the rival college-entrance exam, the SAT, will release its annual report in the fall.

The ACT report includes a breakdown of performance of students by state.

A version of this article appeared in the August 29, 2012 edition of Education Week as Most Students Still Not College-Ready, ACT Report Finds

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