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More and more students are taking the ACT in high school, but their scores are not increasing, finds the new ACT Condition of College and Career Readiness report, released today.

The average composite ACT score in 2010 was a 21.0 out of a maximum 36 -- the lowest average score in the last five years. Average subject scores for mathematics and science stayed constant from 2009, while English and reading declined by 0.1 percentage points, as seen in the table below.

ACT officials say they are nonetheless encouraged by this year's results, because while overall scores are not rising, more students are taking the test and therefore more are moving in the direction of being academically prepared for college. The number of students taking the ACT in 2010 rose to 1,569,000 students, up by 30 percent since 2006, when 1,206,000 students took it. The number has grown steadily, by roughly 100,000 students a year, in the intervening years.

Average ACT scores for 2009 and 2010

  2009 2010
Composite 21.1 21.0
Reading 21.4 21.3
Math 21.0 21.0
Science 20.9 20.9
English 20.6 20.5

“If you look at the average score over the last five years, it’s been basically stable,” said Cynthia Schmeiser, ACT’s education division president and chief operating officer. “But what we believe is really important to focus on is the College Readiness Benchmarks, because they represent the levels of skills that students need in order to go into any kind of postsecondary education without needing any remediation.”

Based on their scores, 24 percent of students met or surpassed all four ACT College Readiness Benchmarks, which are empirically identified scores for each of the subjects that indicate what a student needs to know to succeed in a first-year college course. The data show a slight increase from 21 percent in 2006, but Schmeiser says that the number of students who are completely prepared to go to college is far too small. Twenty-eight percent of students met none of the benchmarks, and 15 percent met only one. Last year, 28 percent of students met no benchmarks, and 16 percent met one.

“Admittedly, it’s slow progress, but the trend is a positive one,” Schmeiser said. “All in all, even though the progress is headed in the right direction, we still have a lot of work to do.”

Nearly half of all 2010 high-school graduates took the ACT, and in seven states -- Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, North Dakota, Tennessee and Wyoming -- all high school graduates are required to have taken the test as part of a statewide assessment. More states hope to implement such a policy in coming years.

But of those seven states, only North Dakota had more than 40 percent of its test-takers meet at least three of the benchmarks. Of all states, only Minnesota exceeded 50 percent, with 70 percent of 2010 high school graduates there having taken the ACT. Schmeiser said that having everyone take the test opens more doors for students and offers greater access to higher education.

In addition to an overall increase in the number of test-takers, there has also been a significant increase in minority students, and particularly Hispanic students, taking the test. Of all the students taking the test this year, 454,000, or 29 percent, were of ethnic or racial minorities. This is up from 27 percent in 2009, and 23 percent in 2006, when 279,000 were minority students. This year, 10 percent of test-takers were Hispanic, compared to 7 percent last year. African-American test-takers increased from 13 to 14 percent.

But even though their numbers are growing and more minority students may be expressing interest in going to college, their scores are staying flat or decreasing. Only Asian students have shown a marked increase in scores since 2006. Black students’ scores have decreased.

Racial breakdown of average ACT scores

  2006 2009 2010 5-year change
Asian 22.3 23.2 23.4 1.1
White 22.0 22.2 22.3 0.3
American Indian 18.8 18.9 19.0 0.2
Hispanic 18.6 18.7 18.6 0.0
Black 17.1 16.9 16.9 -0.2

Schmeiser said that in addition to racial and ethnic diversity, the ACT is also seeing more diversity among family incomes and achievement levels.

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