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As More Students Take ACT, Scores Flatline

By Guest Blogger Caralee Adams

Despite efforts to increase student achievement, the latest ACT scores show that this year's high school graduates are not much more prepared for college or career than last year's class.

The average ACT composite score remained constant at 21 for test takers in the class of 2015, the Iowa City, Iowa-based ACT Inc. reported yesterday. ACT scores range from 1 to 36.

There was a slight bump in students reaching the ACT college-readiness benchmarks in reading (up 2 percent) and science (up 1 percent), but math performance dipped 1 percent and scores on the English section, which focuses on punctuation, grammar, and rhetoric, were flat.

ACT scores 2015.JPG

Jon Erickson, ACT's president of education and career solutions, expressed some hope in those benchmark improvements, especially as more students take the ACT, but also shared some disappointment in the overall results.K-12_Dealmaking.gif

"I thought by now we would see a greater movement to the positive side," he said in a phone interview noting the emphasis on data, higher standards, testing, and alignment between education sectors. "I thought we would be identifying and shaping good practice that really makes an impact right now—and it's scattered. We aren't seeing it."

Numbers of Test Takers Grow

The stagnation in scores comes as more students are taking the ACT.

About 1.92 million students, or 59 percent of the class of 2015, took the ACT. That's an increase from 1.85 million students  or 57 percent of the graduating class last year. Since 2011, there has been nearly a 19 percent increase in the number of high school graduates who took the ACT, while the number of graduates overall has decreased by 1 percent, according to the report.

In comparison, about 1.67 million students took the SAT in 2014. The College Board is set to release its latest results from that exam next week.

For the ACT, about 28 percent of graduates who took the exam in 2015 met the benchmarks in all four subject areas, up from 26 percent last year. But those who met none of the benchmark—31 percent—remained the same from 2014 to 2015.

Erickson said he was especially concerned about those failing all benchmarks and the continued gaps in performance among racial and ethnic groups.

Just 6 percent of African-American students' test scores in 2015 indicated they were college ready in all four areas of English, reading, math, and science, up from 5 percent in 2014. For Latinos, the figure was 15 percent, an increase from 14 percent from last year.

"We have looked at the same data for what seems like decades moving at glacial speed, and that's not a good sign," said Mr. Erickson.

This year's results signal a need for "increased wholesale systematic supports and reform," the report said.

Given how much attention and rhetoric has been paid to improving college- and career- readiness, the stagnant ACT scores are especially discouraging, said Laura Perna, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania and the president of the Association for the Study of Higher Education.

Some hold out hope for one "magic thing or silver bullet" to better prepare students, but the report illustrates the complexity of the problem and the need for more research on what's most effective, she said. "There are so many different forces that go into determining academic readiness," said Perna. "There has to be a more holistic approach...and it takes more time."

Many Students Just Missed

In the new report, the ACT noted that many test takers were close to making the benchmarks in 2015.

In English, 64 percent of students achieved the ACT benchmark and another 9 percent were within 2 points, while in reading 46 percent met the mark and 12 percent were near attainment.

On the math section of the ACT, 42 percent of last year's graduates met the minimum benchmark while 8 percent were within 2 points and 38 percent of test takers met the science threshold and 14 percent were within 2 points of the benchmark.

Little overall progress among test takers prompted ACT Inc. to issue a call for action—internally and externally—to boost scores through policy and practice changes.

Within the organization, Erickson said the ACT is expanding services and highlighting research that shows links to student success, such as taking a core high school curriculum and focusing on positive behavioral skills. Externally, the report emphasized the need for policymakers to improve data use, better align education systems, and provide teacher support and development. 

Improved classroom instruction—along with reinforcement of high standards at the district and state level—is needed to move the needle on students' academic readiness, said Jeff Fuller, the president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling and the director of recruitment at the University of Houston.

"The college-going culture is doing a great job at making sure students see college is in the horizon," said Fuller. "The thing that concerns me is how are they preparing students academically to be competitive for college."

Looking at this year's incoming freshman class, Fuller said he is not surprised to learn that ACT scores were unchanged, as other academic indicators, such as student's grade point averages were no better or worse in his university's incoming class than last year's. He is seeing an increase in students submitting ACT scores only on their applications and expects that will likely continue next year as the College Board introduces the redesigned SAT in the spring. He added that, from his perspective, ACT and SAT scores remain critical to colleges: "They are still cornerstones of admission policies."

Erickson said ACT is gearing up for an expected surge in test taking next year as four to five additional states are expected to contract with ACT to provide the test to all high school juniors (13 states did this year) and a few others are considering doing so.  About one-third of the recent growth in popularity of the ACT is linked to the increase in statewide testing. The rest, Erickson said, is because awareness is growing, and many students feel comfortable taking the test without additional preparation outside of their regular coursework.

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