Newly released ACT scores on tests used for college admissions show that only 1 in 4 graduates of the class of 2011 who took the exam met four key benchmarks that supposedly show readiness for success in the first year of college.

The scores, being released today, show that the achievement gap between the top-scoring students — Asians and whites — and the lowest scoring — African Americans, Hispanics and American Indians — has grown slightly between 2007 and 2011.

Taken together, the snapshot of the 2011 graduating class revealed by the scores shows huge college readiness issues — that is, if you believe that a high-stakes college admissions tests can adequately tell that story. (More on this later.)

The national average composite score for 2011 was 21.1 out of a possible 36.

The states with the highest average composite scores for 2011 are:

1) Massachusetts 24.2

2) Connecticut 23.9

3) New Hampshire 23.7

4) New York 23.4

5) Maine 23.3

6) New Jersey 23.2

States with the lowest average composite scores for 2011 are:

1) Mississippi 18.7

2) Tennessee 19.5

3) Florida and Kentucky 19.6

4) Arizona 19.7

5) New Mexico 19.8

6) Arkansas 19.9

According to ACT, average ACT composite scores for Asian and white graduates increased between 2007 and 2011. The average composite scores look like this:

• for Asians, 22.6 in 2007 to 23.6 in 2011

• for whites, 22.1 in 2007 to 22.4 in 2011

• for African Americans, the score remained at 17 for both years

• for Hispanics, the score remained at 18.7 for both years

• for American Indians, 18.7 in 2007 and 18.6 in 2011

Only 25 percent of the graduates in the class of 2011 who took the ACT exam met or surpassed all four of the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks in English, math, reading and science. The 2010 figure was 24 percent, which ACT calls progress but others might consider relatively flat.

The college readiness benchmarks are the minimum ACT test scores required for students to have a high probability of success in credit-bearing college courses — English composition, social sciences courses, college algebra or biology. They are based on grades earned by students in college.

Here are the ACT benchmarks (out of a possible score of 36 in each subject): for English, a score of at least 18, for reading a score of at least 21, for math a score of at least 22 and for science a score of at least 24.

Twenty-eight percent of test takers in the 2011 high school graduating class did not meet any of the readiness benchmarks, which remained the same from 2010.

Looking at the subtests, results showed that:

• 66 percent of all ACT-tested high school graduates met the English College Readiness Benchmark

• 52 percent met the reading benchmark

• 45 percent met the math benchmark

• 30 percent met the science benchmark

Last year, the ACT caught up with the SAT in the number of students who take it. Today, most colleges will accept either test for college admissions purposes.

ACT reported that this year’s pool of ACT-tested high school graduates was the largest and most racially diverse in its 52-year history, with 1.62 million, or 49 percent of the entire U.S. graduating class, taking the ACT. The proportion of African American and Hispanic/Latino test takers has grown from 19 percent in 2007 to a high of 26 percent in 2011.

The release of the 2011 ACT results comes shortly after an independent analysis of results in Ohio concluded that two of the four subject tests on the ACT — reading and science — are bad predictors of college success. An ACT spokesman told my colleague Jay Mathews, who wrote about the report, that he rejected the conclusion that college admissions officers should ignore the reading and science results.

But that report was just the latest in a string of challenges to the worth of both the ACT and the SAT. Critics say that neither test does a very good job of forecasting how well college freshmen will do in their classes, which has become the test-makers’ main claim for their product. Both ACT and the College Board, the SAT’s sponsor, agree that high school grades are stronger predictors of college academic performance than the results of the exams.

Bob Schaeffer, spokesman for FairTest, an organization that works to ensure that standardized tests are not misused, said in a statement: “Proponents of ‘No Child Left Behind’ and similar state-level high-stakes testing programs, such as exit exams, made two promises: their strategy would boost overall academic performance and it would narrow historic achievement gaps between ethnic groups. But, academic gains, as measured by ACT, are stagnant, and racial gaps are increasing.”

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