Assessment

Students’ Scores Inch Up on ACT Exam

By Catherine Gewertz — September 07, 2017 4 min read

Students performed slightly better on the ACT this year than they did last year, and Hispanic students notched a special victory: Their level of college-readiness rose even as more of them took the exam.

The average composite ACT score for the graduating class of 2017 was 21.0, up from 20.8 in the class of 2016, but the same as the classes of 2014 and 2015. Each of the four sections of the ACT—English, reading, math, and science—is scored on a 0-36 scale.

Fewer students took the ACT this year: 2.03 million, or 60 percent of the 2017 graduating class, sat for the test. Last year, about 60,000 more students—64 percent of the 2016 graduating class—took the exam. The numbers mark the first decline in 13 years and the biggest drop in ACT test-taking since 1990.

The decline happened largely because Illinois and Michigan, two big states that require students to take a statewide college-entrance test, switched from the ACT to the SAT. In its market-share battle with the ACT, the College Board has been pushing hard to win more statewide contracts, which offer—or require—the SAT for all students during the school day.

The smaller size of the 2017 ACT testing pool probably accounted for the slight increase in performance, according to Paul J. Weeks, the ACT Inc.’s senior vice president for client relations.

Test scores tend to dip when more students join the group, because that usually brings a wider variety of skill and preparation levels. But the opposite happened this year with Hispanic students, which makes their performance notable.

The share of Hispanic students in the testing group rose to 17 percent in the class of 2017, up 1 percentage point from last year and 3 points since 2013. But their college-readiness rate rose, too: 24 percent met three or more of the ACT’s college-readiness benchmarks in 2017, compared with 23 percent in the class of 2016. The benchmarks are minimum ACT scores that correlate with a good chance of earning B’s or C’s in entry-level, credit-bearing college courses.

Hispanic students’ performance is still lagging nationally: 39 percent of students overall met three or more of the benchmarks. Six in 10 Asian-American students and half of white students met those benchmarks. But Weeks said the fact that Hispanic students’ scores are rising while more of them take the test is “cause for optimism.”

Black Students’ Growth

African-American students’ performance improved slightly, with 12 percent meeting three or more college-readiness benchmarks, compared with 11 percent in the class of 2016 and 10 percent in 2013. Thirteen percent of the students who took the ACT were African-American, a level that’s held steady since 2013.

“The gaps are persistent and pervasive, and we’re not making much progress,” said Jed Applerouth, the founder of Applerouth Tutoring Services, a national test-preparation company.

Weeks, too, said he was surprised and disappointed that college-readiness scores haven’t risen much, given the high priority that policymakers and teachers have been placing on that yardstick in recent years.

Critics have long attacked standardized tests as a false measure, arguing that they are better gauges of students’ socioeconomic profiles than their academic skill or potential.

Neil Chyten, the founder of the tutoring company Chyten Educational Services, based in Newton, Mass., said he doubts that any college-entrance-exam score truly means students have the knowledge and skills to succeed in college. They reflect specific skills “that can be taught in a relatively short time,” not years of study, Chyten said.

Robert A. Schaeffer, the public education director for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, which opposes high-stakes standardized tests, said in an email that the exam results reflect “more about ACT’s marketing wars with the College Board than anything meaningful about high school students.”

Like all standardized exams, the ACT showcases the differentials in performance between students with key advantages such as family income and education and those without them.

An ACT analysis looks at the performance of “underserved” students by examining three criteria: whether students are from low-income families, belong to racial-minority groups, or would be the first in their families to attend college. The more criteria students meet, the less likely they are to score at ACT’s college-readiness benchmarks.

More than half the students who are not considered underserved met three or four of ACT’s college-ready benchmarks, compared with only 9 percent of those who met all the “underserved student” criteria.

In STEM, a particularly rigorous benchmark created from students’ math and science scores, only 2 percent of the students who met all three underserved criteria reached the college-ready benchmark, but 31 percent of the more-advantaged students met it. Educators and policymakers have been urging students to consider careers that demand science, technology, engineering, and math skills, since those jobs are increasingly in demand and can pay well.

ACT also reported that many students don’t take advantage of the chance to take the exam for free. Low-income students qualify for fee waivers, but in the class of 2017, 28 percent of those who got the waivers didn’t end up taking the test.

Weeks said the ACT has been trying various strategies to address that problem, such as reminding students of their test dates by phone calls, emails, or texts. But many students have work obligations and transportation problems that interfere with weekend testing dates, he said.

A version of this article appeared in the September 13, 2017 edition of Education Week as Students’ Scores Rise Slightly On ACT Exam

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