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ACT’s college admission testing grows, but scores stagnate

Students work on a practice ACT in June 2011 in Newport, Ky. (AP Photo/The Enquirer/Patrick Reddy)

The ACT, the nation’s most widely used college admission test, continues to expand its reach in Maryland, Virginia and several other states where the SAT’s dominance was long unchallenged. But results released Wednesday show that ACT scores across the country are stagnating.

The average score for the high school Class of 2015 was 21, out of a maximum of 36. That was unchanged from the year before and largely echoed results going back a decade. Of 1.92 million people taking the test, the share who met the ACT college readiness standard in English was unchanged from the previous year: 64 percent. The share who met the math benchmark — 42 percent — has slid each year since reaching a peak of 46 percent in 2012.

The share who reached none of the ACT readiness targets in English, math, reading or science stood at 31 percent. That figure has not budged in two years, and it is more worrisome than comparable data from 2011 and 2012.

“The needle is barely moving on college and career readiness, and that means far too many young people will continue to struggle after they graduate from high school,” Jon Whitmore, chief executive of ACT, said in a statement. “This should be a wake-up call for our nation.”

Another top official said he feared that years of reform efforts were having little effect on high school achievement.

“It’s just been the same old, same old,” ACT President Jon Erickson said of the test results. “We’re not closing that gap.”

[ACT president: ‘Relax. Tests don’t define us, nor do they determine our future.’]

Students who aren’t ready, of course, are much less likely to enter college or finish.

“We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of U.S. high school graduates who won’t earn a two- or four-year college degree because they aren’t academically prepared to do so,” Whitmore said. “In the increasingly competitive job market, where decent jobs are requiring more advanced skills and training, this is a huge problem.”

ACT officials said their data show wide racial and ethnic gaps in college readiness, with African American, American Indian and Hispanic students less prepared than their white and Asian counterparts.

In standardized testing, there is often tension between the twin goals of boosting participation and raising scores. It is hard to accomplish both on a broad scale because when more students take a test, especially those with educational disadvantages, very often average scores are weighed down. When fewer take a test, average scores often rise.

The ACT, based in Iowa, has grown steadily in use during the past decade, surpassing the SAT with the Class of 2012. Selective colleges nationwide accept either test. (Some don’t require any test scores.) Students will often take both to learn which one suits them best. The ACT is billed as an achievement test, measuring whether students have mastered core subjects in high school.

The SAT, once known as a test of “scholastic aptitude,” is being redesigned. The new SAT, to be launched in March, will return to the familiar 1600-point scale and will no longer require students to write an essay. College Board officials pledge that it will have fewer tricks and fancy words and will be more in sync with the high school curriculum. Results from the current 2400-point version of the SAT, given to the Class of 2015, are expected to be released in early September.

[Read about the revised SAT.]

ACT officials estimate that 59 percent of all high school graduates in 2015 took their test, up from 47 percent five years earlier and 40 percent a decade ago. In many states, public high school students take the test for free. ACT said it had contracts with 18 states in the most recent school year, from Alabama to Wisconsin, to provide testing to all 11th-graders. Similar arrangements enable public school students in the District and a handful of states — including, soon, Connecticut and New Hampshire — to take the SAT for free.

[How the ACT has grown and how the College Board is seeking more state business.]

  • In the District, about 1,600 students in the Class of 2015 took the ACT. Their average score was 21.1, down from 21.6 in the previous class. Participation rose from 37 percent of 2014 graduates to 42 percent this year.
  • In Maryland, there were about 15,800 test-takers, with an average score of 22.7, compared with the previous mark of 22.6. Participation rose from 22 percent to 25 percent.
  • In Virginia, about 25,000 took the test, with an average score of 23.1. The previous average was 22.8. Participation rose from 28 percent to 30 percent.

“We are certainly excited that ACT scores have continued to improve in Maryland even as participation has gone up,” said Jack Smith, chief academic officer and deputy superintendent for the state’s Department of Education. “This is the same phenomenon we’ve seen with [Advanced Placement testing] over time, and it indicates that aspiring to continue one’s education can fuel academic improvement.  ACT’s focus on college and career readiness mirrors a priority for Maryland public schools, and we expect the scores to continue to improve as more rigorous standards take hold.”

In all three jurisdictions, the SAT remains more widely used. But the ACT in recent years has gained ground.

That is also true in California. The SAT remains dominant in the nation’s most populous state. But three out of every 10 California graduates in 2015 took the ACT, twice the participation rate of a decade ago.

“More students are taking both tests, determining which one they do better in, and usually submitting that one,” said Dianne Klein, a spokeswoman for the University of California system. Or they double up on test scores.

UC data show that 26,000 applicants for the incoming freshman class submitted only ACT scores  and that 84,000 submitted only SAT scores. Nearly 39,000 submitted results from both.

Read more: 

George Washington University will no longer require admission tests.

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