Mixed Results for ACT

August 19, 2009

The annual release of data on ACT and SAT scores frequently involves a variation of the "glass half empty or half full" debate, as there are typically many ways to look at the numbers.

This year's ACT numbers, being released today, are flat. But because more people took the test than did so in prior years, and because those test takers included a broader range of high school students -- beyond just the college-bound -- ACT leaders said that level scores actually suggested improvements for those on the pre-college track in high school. And, as has been the case in past years, ACT officials point out that those test takers who followed recommendations on taking a college preparatory curriculum did better than those who didn't.

The ACT this year was taken by nearly 1.5 million students, up 25 percent over the last five years. While once a test largely taken by students in the Midwest and the South, the ACT has in recent years made significant inroads in the Northeast and the West where it is no longer unheard of for students to take the ACT in addition to the SAT. ACT officials says that their test is closer to what students experience in the high school classroom than is the SAT, and many guidance counselors recommend the test for students who are considered smart but "don't test well." (The College Board releases data on the SAT next week.)

The ACT is scored on a scale of 1 to 36, with students receiving a composite score and individual scores in each of four areas. Here are this year's scores and last year's.

ACT Scores in 2008 and 2009

  2008 2009
Composite 21.1 21.1
English 20.6 20.6
Mathematics 21.0 21.0
Reading 21.4 21.4
Science 20.8 20.9

Where progress (or lack thereof) is more evident is when looking at the composite scores over five years by racial and ethnic group. Over five years, gains by Asian-American test takers have been significant (with consistent increases year after year), while white and Latino gains have been modest, and black students show a small decline.

5-Year Changes in ACT Composites, by Race and Ethnicity

Group 2005 2009 5-Year Change
Black 17.0 16.9 -0.1
American Indian 18.7 18.9 +0.2
White 21.9 22.2 +0.3
Latino 18.6 18.7 +0.1
Asian American 22.1 23.2 +1.1
Other / no response 20.9 20.9 no change

Cynthia Board Schmeiser, president of ACT's education division, said that while "it's easy to say we're not moving forward" because of the flat total scores, she thought the growth in test takers suggested a growth in learning. In five states this year, all students took the ACT, so that population (expected to grow in the years ahead) doesn't have the same preparation as those who are taking the ACT to apply to college.

In particular, Schmeiser said she was encouraged by data showing increasing numbers of students meeting some or all of the various benchmarks set by by the ACT for college preparation. For instance, over the last five years, the number of students taking the correct number of high school courses increased to 70 percent from 56 percent, she said.

At the same time, she noted that this is just a figure about the correct number of courses, not whether they were the right ones. But she said that was an "important first step," and that more progress would follow.

Jon L. Erickson, vice president of educational services at ACT, said he saw similar hope for the black and Latino students taking the ACT. The testing service has had success getting more students to take the test -- and now needs to use that information to coach schools and families to make choices early on that result in more students being college-ready.

He noted that when Colorado and Illinois became the first states to require all students to take the ACT, in 2002, they saw their scores drop. But these states are now reporting score improvements that outpace the rest of the country, suggesting that providing information back to schools can have a positive impact on preparation.

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