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ACT Scores Show Most Students Aren’t Ready for College

By — Education Week
Updated on Apr 8, 2011

Fewer than one quarter of last school year’s graduating high school seniors who took the ACT scored at the “college-ready” level in all four subject areas, a finding that prompted the nation’s highest education official to renew his demand that schools do a far better job preparing students for college.

According to results released today, the proportion of tested graduating seniors who are “college ready” as defined by the ACT grew from 22 percent in the class of 2008 to 23 percent in the class of 2009. College-readiness levels remained within two-tenths of a percentage point of where they’ve been since 2005.

“We need to increase the number of high school graduates who are prepared to succeed in college,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement released through ACT Inc., the Iowa City, Iowa-based nonprofit organization that designs the test. “The recent increase in college preparedness on the ACT is good news. But our students need to do dramatically better to guarantee their future success.”

The average composite score across all areas tested—English, mathematics, reading, and science—was 21.1 on a 36-point scale, the same as for the class of 2008.

Leaders of ACT saw encouraging signs in the national test-score report. The pool of test-takers continues to expand and grow more diverse. There were nearly 1.5 million test-takers in the class of 2009, 4 percent more than in the class of 2008. Some of that growth is due to the fact that two more states—Kentucky and Wyoming—joined Colorado, Illinois, and Michigan in requiring all 11th graders to take the ACT.

The number of test-takers grew more slowly this past year than it did between 2007 and 2008, when the pool expanded by 9 percent. The number of test-takers has grown 25 percent since 2005. Since 2005, participation by black students has risen 41 percent, by Hispanics 61 percent, and by Asians by 51 percent, compared with a 20 percent rise among white students.

Troubling Signs

But ACT officials saw troubling signs in the data as well. Jon L. Erickson, the organization’s vice president for educational services, said that while it is welcome news that more students, especially those in traditionally underserved populations, are taking the college-entrance and -placement test, their performance on the college-readiness benchmarks illustrates the need for better preparation, especially in mathematics and science.

While 67 percent of the test-takers in the class of 2009 met college-ready benchmarks in English and 53 percent did so in reading, only 42 percent did so in math and 28 percent did so in science, according to the test results.

“With all the focus now on STEM, it’s a concern that we see far fewer students meeting those benchmarks in science and math,” he said of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

ACT, which is a key partner in a national, multi-organization effort to design common academic standards, determines colleage readiness by surveying thousands of high school and college instructors every few years to glean the knowledge and skills students need to pass entry-level, credit-bearing courses in college. Its research has pinpointed test-score cutoffs, or benchmarks, that predict a 75 percent chance of earning a C or better in such courses.

Mr. Erickson said a number of factors contribute to students’ falling short of college-readiness benchmarks. Too many high schools lack a focus on college-readiness skills, he said, and don’t “zero in” on key standards that need to be mastered. In some cases, high school students are not taking the right courses, and in others, the courses themselves are not sufficiently rigorous to impart college-level skill and knowledge, he said.

ACT data showed that students who took what the organization defines as a “core curriculum”—four years of English and at least three years each of rigorous natural science, social science, and mathematics—scored better on the test than those who did not. Seventy percent of the test-takers said they had taken a core curriculum.

Robert Schaeffer, the public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a Cambridge, Mass.-based testing watchdog group known as FairTest, said the “stagnant” ACT scores reflect a failure of the promise of the federal No Child Left Behind Act to boost achievement and improve college readiness.

“Politicians can make all the claims they want that it is raising achievement, but even when there are improvements in state test scores, they don’t show up in college-admissions test data, or on [the National Assessment of Educational Progress],” he said. “So where is the beef?”

Mr. Schaeffer also noted that a FairTest analysis of ACT score changes between 2008 and 2009 shows little narrowing in the gaps between racial and ethnic minority students and their white peers. The ACT scores show only 4 percent of black students and 10 percent of Hispanic students meeting college-readiness benchmarks in all four subject areas in 2009, compared with 28 percent of white students and 36 percent of Asian students.

The College Board was scheduled to release its national SAT scores on Aug. 25.

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