ACT scores up, more US students ready for college

The class of 2011 showed small gains in ACT scores, according to a new report, but America still has a long way to go before all high school graduates are prepared for college or a career.

Photo illustration: Odilon Dimier/Altopress/Newscom
In this photo, high school students are shown studying together outdoors. A new report released today shows ACT scores up and more students are ready for college.

The class of 2011 showed some small gains in their readiness for college, according to a new ACT report released today, but America still has a long way to go before all high school graduates are prepared for college – or a career.

The annual report, which looks at graduates’ performance against four “college readiness benchmarks” in English, reading, math, and science, found that 25 percent of graduates who took the ACT met or surpassed the benchmarks in all four subjects, compared with 24 percent last year. It was the third consecutive year of improvement.

At the same time, 28 percent of graduates didn’t meet the benchmark in any of the four subjects, and another 15 percent met it in just one.

The growth, even of just 1 percent, is significant given that this is the largest and most diverse cohort to have taken the ACT, says Paul Weeks, ACT’s vice president of educational services.

“Obviously there are some reasons for optimism, but there are also some signals and statistics that are cause for concern,” says Mr. Weeks.

The report attempts to get at not just what students know, but also how likely they are to succeed in a college setting – the focus of current federal education policy, in which “college and career readiness” is the top buzzword.

The ACT’s college-readiness benchmarks – based on actual grades earned by students – are the minimum scores that indicate a student has a 75 percent chance of earning a C or better, or a 50 percent chance of earning a B or better, in a first-year credit-bearing college course.

“These ACT results are another sign that states need to raise their academic standards and commit to education reforms that accelerate student achievement,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a statement. “American students are making incremental progress toward being ready to complete college-level work, but there’s still significant work to be done.”

The ACT is one of two college entrance exams widely taken by high school seniors, and who takes it varies widely by geography, making it difficult to compare scores across states. Some states require the test of all students, while relatively few students opt to take it in others. This year, a record 1.6 million students in the 2011 class took the exam.

The small improvement that was made in meeting benchmarks came mostly from improvement in math and science – but those remain the two subject areas where students struggle the most. Whereas 66 percent of graduates who took the test met the college-readiness benchmark in English, for instance, just 30 percent did in science, and 45 percent in math. (Last year, those numbers were 29 percent and 43 percent, respectively.)

The results also showed a significant race-based achievement gap. Just 4 percent of African-Americans met the benchmarks in all four subjects, compared with 11 percent of Hispanics and American Indians, 15 percent of Pacific Islanders, 31 percent of whites, and 41 percent of Asian-Americans. At least 50 percent of African-American, Hispanic, and American-Indian students didn’t meet any of the four benchmarks.

While these benchmarks zero in on students’ academic preparedness for college, Weeks says that much of the research of ACT and other organizations is focusing on other dimensions of what students need to succeed in college or a career, such as behavioral readiness and education and career planning.

And the focus from Secretary Duncan and other policy leaders on college readiness as the ultimate goal may be starting to pay off, he says, lauding the fact that the national conversation has shifted away from proficiency targets to higher standards, more rigorous coursework, and attaining the skills students need to succeed after high school.

Some states and districts have started monitoring academic behaviors and achievement far earlier and doing more targeted intervention when necessary. And attention is starting to be paid to the rigor of core courses, rather than just getting more students to take a core curriculum.

“Certainly all the indicators are that college and career readiness is the expectation. The bar will be raised and it will take some time to catch up across all the student groups and get the curriculum caught up, but I do think [the progress] will continue,” Weeks says.

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