Jump in ACT Scores

Test average sees biggest increase in 20 years, but gaps among racial groups also grow.
August 16, 2006

The composite score on the ACT increased to 21.1 for students who graduated from high school this year -- a 0.2 point increase that represents the biggest advance in 20 years.

No ethnic or racial group showed decreases this year. But Asian Americans -- already the highest performing group on the ACT -- posted larger gains than other groups, increasing the gaps among groups. During the last five years, Asian Americans have seen their average composite score increase by 0.7 -- compared to gains of 0.2 for American Indians and Hispanics and 0.3 for black and white students.

The ACT and the SAT are the two major standardized tests used for college admissions. The ACT is scored on a scale of 1-36 and is based on separate scores in four curriculum-based tests: in English, mathematics, reading and science. Historically, the ACT has been most popular in the Midwest, but data from this year showed continued growth in students taking the ACT in other regions, most notably New England, which previously was dominated by the SAT. (SAT averages for the year are due out later this month.)

Both the SAT and the ACT have introduced writing portions to their exams and the ACT released scores on that test (which were not included in composite totals) for the first time on Tuesday. On the ACT, the writing exam is optional because many colleges that require ACT or SAT scores don't necessarily want the writing test. Of the more than 1.2 million students who took the ACT and graduated from high school in 2006, 36 percent took the writing exam -- a 30-minute essay based on a prompt. The average score for those students was 7.7 (on a scale of 2 to 12).

In terms of race and ethnicity, the scores mirrored those of other parts of the ACT, with the highest average going to Asian Americans (8.0) and the lowest to African Americans (6.8). Female students far outperformed male students on the writing test -- 7.9 to 7.4. In terms of totals that make up the composite score, men do better on math and science and women do better on English and reading. The total composite score average for men is 21.2, compared to 21.0 for women -- with both figures up by 0.1 this year. There was a large increase in the composite scores of students who did not report gender -- 0.8, to a total of 21.1 -- and that group increased in size from less than 1 percent of students to 3 percent of those taking the test.

In a telephone press conference, Richard L. Ferguson, ACT's chief executive officer, stressed the relationship between high school courses taken, ACT scores, and preparation for college. "Students who take a challenging series of core, college-prep course work will end up with better preparation," he said.

The ACT asks test takers to report on which courses they take, so that it can provide analysis for different groups on the impact of taking a college preparatory program. Across racial groups, scores are significantly higher for those who have taken the core courses than for those who haven't.

ACT Scores for 2006 High School Graduates

Group Average Score, 2006 Increase in Score, 2002-6 % Who Took Core Curriculum, 2006 Average, Those Who Took Core Average, Those Who Did Not Take Core
All 21.1 0.3 54% 22.0 19.7
Black 17.1 0.3 53% 17.8 16.2
American Indian 18.8 0.2 48% 20.2 17.5
White 22.0 0.3 56% 22.9 20.6
Hispanic 18.6 0.2 52% 19.5 17.6
Asian 22.3 0.7 60% 22.9 21.1
Race Unknown 21.1 0.8 n/a n/a n/a

While the overall data reflect the impact of taking a core curriculum, they also show that even doing so does not erase racial and ethnic gaps. Asian and white students who did not take core courses outperform, on average, black, American Indian and Hispanic students who did take core courses.

Ferguson attributed these gaps to a variety of factors, in particular "rigor of courses," which can't be measured with the self-reporting used to determine who has taken core courses.

One of the changes noted by ACT officials is a substantial increase in the number of people taking the ACT outside of the Midwest. Almost all colleges accept both the ACT and the SAT, although in areas like New England, colleges are far more likely to receive SAT scores, even when the ACT is an option. In recent years, more students applying from New England or applying to New England colleges have started taking the ACT (frequently still taking the SAT) to go for the best possible score to submit. Many counselors say that their students who do well in high school courses but "test poorly" tend get better ACT scores, and to get scores that may more accurately reflect their abilities.

For whatever reason, more students are taking the ACT in parts of the country where that was once unheard of. In New England, 19,721 students to the ACT this year, up 13 percent from last year's total, which was also 13 percent higher than the previous year. Other states where the numbers of ACT test-takers were up significantly this year included Florida (+14%), New Jersey (+33%), and Oregon (+12%).


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