Modest Gains on ACT

While overall score and percentage of students deemed "college ready" are up slightly, racial and ethnic gaps remain large.
August 17, 2011

The ACT is today announcing very small gains on the total composite score and on the percentage of test-takers whose scores suggest they are "college ready." But the new data suggest that large gaps remain when looking at test scores by racial and ethnic groups.

ACT is increasingly trying to de-emphasize the average scores (the composite score this year is 21.1, up from 21.0 out of a possible 36 points). This year's official news release doesn't even contain those figures (a first for the ACT). Rather the ACT is focusing on the percentage of students who take the ACT who score on its various parts at levels that suggest they will succeed in college, without the need for remediation. Here, ACT said that 25 percent of students showed that capability across all four subjects tested, up from 24 percent last year, and 23 percent the year before.

The subject at which ACT-takers show the most readiness for college is English (66 percent have test scores that suggest no need for remediation), followed by reading (52 percent), mathematics (45 percent) and science (30 percent). The English and reading scores are flat, while mathematics is up two percentage points and science one percentage point.

The figures on readiness, consistent with those on the ACT scores themselves, show major gaps by race and ethnicity. Among Asian American applicants, 41 percent met the benchmarks to suggest they would need no remediation in any subject tested by the ACT, compared to 31 percent for white students, 15 percent for Pacific Islanders, 11 percent each for Latino and Native American students, and 4 percent for black students.

The annual release of ACT and SAT averages takes place each August and September. The College Board will release SAT average scores next month. The ACT has historically been more popular than the SAT in the Midwest and the South, but the ACT has more recently expanded into markets nationwide. Colleges that require an SAT or ACT score will take either. In theory, a table matches scores from the two tests, but many students report doing "better" on one exam than the other.

The ACT continues to show significant growth from year to year in the number of test-takers. Part of this is due to the increase in students taking both the SAT and ACT, and part is due to school districts or states requiring all high school seniors to take the exam. (The latter policies in some cases add to the pool of students who are not college-bound and who may bring down average scores, although in other cases they may add students who are college-bound and had planned to take only the SAT.) This year, 1,623,112 students took the ACT, up 3 percent from last year, and up 25 percent over four years.

Overall figures for the ACT average scores nationally show very little movement from year to year. This year's composite average of 21.1 is up 0.1 from a year ago, but down 0.1 from four years ago. This year English and mathematics showed gains of 0.1 point, while reading and science were flat.

In looking at gains over a four-year period, the one area of clear and consistent growth is in the composite scores of Asian-American test-takers, which grew by either 0.3 or 0.2 each year. In contrast, black and Latino students' scores are just where they were at the beginning of the period, and Native American students' scores are down.

Average Composite ACT Scores by Race/Ethnicity, 2007-11

  2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
Asian American 22.6 22.9 23.2 23.4 23.6
White 22.1 22.1 22.2 22.3 22.4
Native American 18.9 19.0 18.9 19.0 18.7
Latino 18.7 18.7 18.7 18.6 18.7
Black 17.0 16.9 16.9 16.9 17.0

A theme of the ACT for years has been that students who take a recommended core of college preparatory courses in high school do much better on the exam (and then in college) than do those who don't take those courses. Data being released today back up that theory, and also show that the racial and ethnic groups that have the highest percentage of students completing core courses are those that have the highest average scores. Further, the data show that completing core courses results in significantly higher averages for all groups.

But the data also show that Asian and white students who do not take the core courses end up, on average, with higher ACT scores than do those black and Latino students who do.

Average ACT Composite Scores by Race, Ethnicity and Completion of Core Courses, 2011

Group % Taking Core ACT Average, Those Who Take Core ACT Average, Those Who Don't Take Core
All 74% 21.9 19.0
Black 69% 17.5 15.9
Native American 63% 19.7 17.1
White 76% 23.1 20.3
Latino 72% 19.4 17.2
Asian 81% 24.1 21.9
Pacific Islander 78% 20.0 17.8
Two or more races 72% 21.8 19.3


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