More Students and Higher Scores for ACT

More graduating seniors in SAT-centric districts decided to take the standardized achievement test, and average scores continued to rise.
August 15, 2007

ACT scores for high school students who graduated this year inched up in all categories even as the number of test takers increased significantly, a trend the exam's creators partially attributed to states' heightened attention to college readiness.

The average composite score rose a tenth of a point over that of 2006 -- when the biggest strides in 20 years were recorded -- to 21.2, and the results also indicate an increase within each of the exam's categories. The ACT, which has historically been most popular in Midwestern states, is scored on a scale of 1 to 36 in each of four sections: English, mathematics, reading and science. The scores are averaged to produce the composite.

Continuing a trend over the past several years, more students from traditionally SAT-dominated areas have been adding the ACT to their collection of test scores, helping to boost the total number of graduating seniors this year who took it to over 1.3 million, an increase of nearly 100,000. Richard L. Ferguson, the CEO of the nonprofit ACT organization, told reporters in a conference call that possibly half of the growth in terms of volume could have come from the East Coast, with double-digit increases in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York. California also posted double-digit gains, in addition to a 45-percent increase in Oregon.

The increase in students taking the exam has done little to silence critics of standardized testing. FairTest: the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, which is critical of the SAT and ACT, released a statement from its public education director, Robert Schaeffer. "Increasingly the ACT and SAT are seen as 'wealth tests,' not accurate predictors of a teenager's capacity to do college academic work," he said. "That is a major reason why more colleges and universities are moving toward test-optional admissions."

Ferguson countered suggestions that the composite score increase could have originated with the influx of test takers from high-scoring regions in the East and West, noting that gains over the past several years have encompassed some states (such as Colorado, Illinois and now Michigan) that now require that all rising seniors take the ACT as part of their accountability efforts. "We have ample reason here to feel that there is a genuine amount of growth," Ferguson said, even including the third or so of graduating students who would not be considered college-bound.

Even so, Ferguson stressed that more work was needed to bring high schools' core curriculums in line with the skills necessary for college, a key metric that the achievement test is intended to measure. "Too often, core courses in our high schools fail to teach students the essential knowledge and skills they need to succeed in first-year college courses such as college algebra and college biology," he said in a statement. And while the ACT's benchmarks for college readiness showed improvements for math and science, only 15 percent of students who took the minimum recommended coursework in math, for example, met the test's standards for postsecondary preparation. There is "some evidence that students could do more ... if more was expected of them," Ferguson added.

Percent of Students Meeting College Readiness Benchmarks

Graduation Year Number Tested English Math Reading Science Meet All Four
2003 1,175,059 67% 40% 52% 26% 20%
2004 1,171,460 68% 40% 52% 26% 21%
2005 1,186,251 68% 41% 51% 26% 21%
2006 1,206,455 69% 42% 53% 27% 21%
2007 1,300,599 69% 43% 53% 28% 23%

Joining the call for more rigor in high school was Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who said in a statement, "While scores have improved in all four required subject-area tests, more than half of all test takers still fell short of the College Readiness Benchmarks. This is unacceptable when 90 percent of the fastest growing jobs require at least some postsecondary education." Aligning the high school curriculum with the demands of college and the work place is one of the Bush administration's goals in reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act, and of the secretary's Commission on the Future of Higher Education.

Another of the K-12 law's goals has been the elimination of the achievement gap between racial and ethnic groups. This year, African-American students posted a 0.1-point drop in average composite score on the ACT, although that was higher than 2003's average. All other groups made gains this year, although disparities persist, especially between African Americans (17.0) and Hispanics (18.7) and Caucasians (22.1) and Asian Americans (22.6).

Average Scores by Race/Ethnicity

Race/Ethnicity English Math Reading Science Composite
All Students 20.7 21.0 21.5 21.0 21.2
African American 16.1 17.0 17.1 17.2 17.0
American Indian 17.9 18.7 19.4 19.2 18.9
Caucasian 21.8 21.7 22.5 21.9 22.1
Hispanic 17.6 19.0 18.8 18.8 18.7
Asian American 21.7 23.6 22.1 22.3 22.6
Other or No Response 21.2 21.5 22.0 21.3 21.6

The gender breakdown, meanwhile, has remained constant from last year, with slight advantages for male test takers in science and females in English. Still, 6 percent of test takers declined to disclose their gender -- a category that gets higher scores in all sections.

Average Scores by Gender

Gender Percent of Takers English Math Reading Science Composite
Male 42% 20.2 21.6 21.2 21.4 21.2
Female 52% 21.0 20.4 21.6 20.5 21.0
Missing 6% 21.7 21.9 22.4 21.7 22.1

And, as with the SAT, the ACT added an optional writing test in 2005. The average score -- out of a range from 2 to 12 -- was 7.6 this year, slightly below the first year's result of 7.7.

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