A growing number of states are administering the ACT to all high school juniors, a trend that has helped the Iowa City, Iowa-based organization's test overtake the SAT as the most widely used college-entrance exam in recent years.
Nearly 1.85 million students in the class of 2014 took the ACT, according to the annual Condition of College and Career Readiness report released Aug. 20, the tenth year of increased participation. (See related blog post with a national perspective.)
Included in those numbers are students in 11 states where the ACT was offered during the school day to all students in the class of 2014. Another three states began testing statewide in the spring of 2013. Five more states will test all juniors in the coming school year. In some states, the ACT has replaced high school exit exams as the threshold for graduation.
(Three states offer the SAT to all students during the school day.)
In some states with multiple years of ACT testing nearly 100 percent of students, achievement is rising slightly.
While the national average composite score this year was up 0.1 to 21 (on a scale of 1 to 36), three states in which all juniors took the test experienced an increase of 0.2 (Colorado, Michigan, and North Carolina) and another three (Kentucky, Tennessee and Wyoming) had average scores improve by 0.3 points, according to ACT. Scores between 2013 and 2014 in Illinois and North Dakota where all students also are offered the exam rose 0.1.
Jon Erickson, ACT's president of education and career services, said the states that give the ACT statewide also tend to have several elements supporting student achievement, such as a focus on college-readiness curriculum, high expectations for all students, and partnerships with higher education.
Wyoming schools embrace testing
Deb Lindsey, the director of assessment in the Wyoming Department of Education, said the state's 0.3 increase in average ACT composite scores is not trivial.
"It represents an additional emphasis that schools place on assessment and a shift in responsibility to the school, not just the student," she said.
Wyoming has required all juniors to take the ACT in 2013 and 2014, but nearly 90 percent took it for free during the school day with state support going back to at least 2009 in an effort to increase access and promote college going, said Lindsey.
"For some students, the mere act of paying can be an obstacle and arriving on a Saturday can be difficult," she said.
Also helping fuel testing performance in Wyoming is a state requirement that students take a certain sequence of rigorous high school courses and obtain a minimum ACT score to qualify for the most money through a college scholarship program supported by the state, added Lindsey.
In addition to states where nearly 100 percent of juniors take the ACT, another 18 states reported more than 50 percent of 11th graders took the exam. On the other end of the spectrum, just 9 percent of graduates in Maine, 16 percent in Rhode Island, and 18 percent in Delaware, took the ACT.
It is difficult to compare exam scores by state because when test taking is optional, more motivated students will be inclined to participate, said Jim Hull, the senior policy analyst at the Center for Public Education at the National School Boards Association. Require all juniors to take the ACT and the test-taking population is more diverse, including those without college aspirations, he added.
The latest ACT report shows the highest composite scores for the ACT were in states with a lower percentage of graduates taking the exam. The highest average score of 24.3 was in Massachusetts, where just 23 percent of graduates took the exam. The lowest average score was in Hawaii at 18.2 where 90 percent of students took the ACT, followed by North Carolina (18.9) where all students take the exam.
Data gives clearer picture
Analysts, such as Hull, welcome the expanding data from states where nearly 100 of graduates take the ACT, because it gives a clearer picture of college readiness when all students are included. Since family background and income can be a factor in student testing performance, when test taking is optional, students' backgrounds need to be considered, he said.
This is not likely a concern with this recent data comparing entire junior classes in states from one year to the next because the population would likely be stable.
"It's safe to assume in those states making 0.2 and 0.3 increases, those are fairly significant gains," said Hull.
ACT may be adding more market share because students are more comfortable with the test format and it looks like other exams they take in school, added Hull. The ACT is considered more curriculum-based, while the SAT is more focused on aptitudealthough that will likely change with the College Board's announcement to redesign the SAT in 2016, he added.
Erickson said that while ACT would like to have every state use its test statewide, the goal is to improve college readiness and there are a variety of ways to achieve that.
"The ACT is just a measure. It's really the policies and practices around it and the use of the information that is most important," he said.