New results from the nation's most widely used college admission test highlight in detailed fashion the persistent achievement gaps between students who face disadvantages and those who don't.
Scores from the ACT show that just 9 percent of students in the class of 2017 who came from low-income families, whose parents did not go to college, and who identify as black, Hispanic, American Indian or Pacific Islander are strongly ready for college.
But the readiness rate for students with none of those demographic characteristics was six times as high, 54 percent, according to data released Thursday.
"That kind of shocked us," ACT chief executive Marten Roorda said. "We knew it was bad, but we didn't know it was this bad."
The analysis of "underserved learners" was a first for the ACT, which is one of two major tests students can take to apply to college. The other is the College Board's SAT.
In recent years, both tests have found major disparities in college readiness among students in the Washington region and around the country. Roorda lamented that these gaps have persisted despite efforts to improve schools under the banners of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top and other national initiatives.
"You could argue that those investments should have made a clearer difference," he said, "and that's not what we're seeing."
More than 2 million of this year's high school graduates took the ACT, accounting for an estimated 60 percent of the class. Their average composite score was 21 out of a maximum 36 on the multiple-choice test of English, math, reading and science learning. That was up from 20.8 a year before.
Scores this year in Maryland (23.6), Virginia (23.8) and the District (24.2) exceeded the national average. But that was largely a function of participation rates. In each of those jurisdictions, slightly fewer than a third of graduates took the ACT, well below the national rate. With standardized testing, average scores often decline when participation rises because the results reflect a cross-section of students with a broader range of academic experiences and abilities.
The SAT is more prevalent in the District, Maryland and Virginia, although the ACT has expanded in recent years in the region.
SAT scores for 2017 are expected to be released in late September. Last year, the College Board reported that about 1.7 million students in the class of 2016 took that admission test.
Natasha Ushomirsky, a policy development director for the Education Trust, a nonprofit that advocates for disadvantaged students, said achievement gaps reflect long-standing disparities in the quality of teachers, rigor of curriculum and degree of academic support available to poor and minority children.
She called the ACT's data understandable but "incredibly discouraging." States and schools, she said, must redouble efforts to narrow and eliminate achievement gaps. "There's a lot of power in communicating the expectation that all students can achieve at high levels," Ushomirsky said.
Disadvantaged students face complex challenges connected to their families, neighborhoods and schools. The ACT analyzed how those students performed relative to benchmark scores for readiness on the test's four sections. It found:
●About 560,000 students had one of the three "underserved" characteristics. Some came from a low-income family. Some had parents who didn't go to college. Others were from an underrepresented racial or ethnic minority. The share of this group that met at least three benchmarks — a level ACT says indicates strong college readiness — was 26 percent.
●About 254,000 test-takers met two of the underserved criteria. Their strong readiness rate was 15 percent. About 114,000 more met all three of the criteria. They had the lowest rate of strong readiness: 9 percent.
●More than half of the test-takers — 1.1 million — were not underserved. Fifty-four percent showed strong readiness, 14 percent some readiness, and 32 percent little or no readiness.
Among the bright spots in the report, the ACT said Hispanic participation rose with the 2017 class, and Hispanic scores improved slightly: Twenty-four percent showed strong college readiness, up from 23 percent a year before. That is notable because Hispanic students are a fast-growing bloc nationally.
The ACT overtook the SAT as the most widely used admission test with the class of 2012. Younger than the SAT, the ACT has grown in part through contracts with states that require students to take the exam before they graduate from public high schools. The ACT said 16 states paid for all students to take the test as part of a statewide testing program, with others funding testing on an optional basis.
The College Board has made inroads recently, winning contracts for the SAT in Michigan and elsewhere. The District pays for SAT testing in its public high schools. About 32 percent of D.C. graduates in 2017 took the ACT, down from 38 percent in 2013.
The share of Maryland graduates who took the test rose from 21 percent in 2013 to 28 percent this year. The share for Virginia rose in that time from 26 percent to 29 percent.