ACT scores show 3 in 10 high school grads lagging

Members of the high school class of 2011 posted a slight gain on the ACT college entrance exam, but nearly three in 10 recent graduates failed to meet a single benchmark that predicts they are ready for college.

Twenty-five percent of ACT test-takers met the college-readiness standard in the four core subjects of English, math, reading and science. That's a slight increase over last year and the third straight year of such improvement. The average composite score of 21.1 on the test's 1-to-36 scale is a one-tenth of a percent increase from the previous year and restores the national average to where it was in 2009.

But another 28 percent of students didn't score high enough to meet any of the ACT standards for expected college success, and will likely need remedial college work to catch up.

Officials with ACT Inc., the Iowa City, Iowa-based not-for-profit that administers the test, joined policymakers in a call for more rigorous high school courses. Forty-five states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core State Standards, a group of academic recommendations that aim to create a uniform definition of what skills students are taught, regardless of where they go to school.

"These ACT results are another sign that states need to raise their academic standards and commit to education reforms that accelerate student achievement," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said.

Each ACT subject-area test has a benchmark that sets minimum scores needed to give students a 50 percent chance of earning a 'B' or higher and a 75 percent chance of earning a 'C' or higher in a typical first-year college course.

A record 1.62 million students in the class of 2011 — nearly half of all high school graduates — took the ACT, the seventh consecutive increase for the college entrance exam. Scores on the SAT, the other primary college entrance exam in this country, have not yet been released for 2011.

Some states require the test of all high school students. In others, the test is generally limited to high-achieving students with an eye on attending the most selective colleges. That makes broad comparisons across states difficult.

Nationally, the latest ACT results show a wide variation of student performance for the four subject areas. Nearly two-thirds met the college readiness standard for English, and more than half performed similarly on the reading tests.

Forty-five percent met the readiness benchmark for math, while just 30 percent of graduates met the science standard.

"We have a long way yet to go," said Jon Erickson, interim president of ACT's education division. "Being ready and prepared as you leave high school is an important variable for college success."

Scores for minority students, excluding Asian Americans, were generally short of the national average.

Only 4 percent of black students met the college-readiness standards for all four subjects, compared to 31 percent for whites, 15 percent for Pacific Islanders, and 11 percent for Hispanics and American Indians. None of the benchmarks were met by at least 50 percent of each of those groups.

By contrast, 41 percent of Asian Americans topped the preparedness standards in all four subjects, with more than 70 percent exceeding the marks in English and math.

ACT officials singled out both the performance and participation rate of Hispanic test takers. The proportion of black and Hispanic test takers rose to 26 percent, compared to just 19 percent in 2007. The number of Hispanic test takers has more than doubled in the past four years, according to the company.

The college benchmark rate for Hispanic students improved by 1 percent to 3 percent on all four core subjects, with the biggest single year gain in math (30 percent in 2011, 27 percent in 2010).

At the same time, more Hispanic students — 45 percent — didn't score high enough to meet any of the ACT standards for expected college success compared to the national averages.

"Too many students are still falling through the cracks," Erickson said.


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