Some ACT Bright Spots, But Shortcomings in College Readiness Remain

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ACT’s most recent annual report, “The Condition of College and Career Readiness 2012,” examines the college readiness of spring high school graduates who took the ACT in their sophomore, junior, or senior year. As in recent years, college readiness remains flat overall, with slight improvements in students’ readiness for college-level math, English, and science courses. There are some bright spots, however: More students are taking the ACT than ever, including students of color; and among Latino graduates who took the test, scores are up.

Since 2008, the number of students who graduate from high school having taken the ACT has increased by 17 percent, and this year, more high school graduates than ever — 52 percent of the graduating class nationally — took the ACT. Between 2008 and 2012, there was a 25 percent increase in the number of African-American graduates taking the ACT, and a more than 100 percent increase in the number of Latino graduates taking the test.

More interesting still, while composite scores for all test takers remained flat at 20.9 (36 is a perfect score) between 2011 and 2012, scores for Hispanic ACT-tested graduates rose — from 18.7 to 18.9 — even as the number of students tested in that group continued to climb.

Unfortunately, only 25 percent of tested graduates nationwide met college readiness benchmarks in English, reading, math, and science, reflecting no change from last year. Nearly a third of test-takers met not one of the four benchmarks, which are indicators of college and career readiness. Even more troubling, only 1 in 20 African American test-takers and only one in eight Latino test-takers met all four of the benchmarks, compared to about one in three of their white counterparts. According to the ACT, students who meet these benchmarks have roughly “a 50 percent chance of obtaining a B or higher or about a 75 percent chance of obtaining a C or higher in corresponding credit-bearing, first-year college courses” without remedial intervention.

Even as the nation’s performance remained flat, some states showed progress on the percentage of students meeting college-readiness benchmarks. In Michigan, for example, although the percent of students meeting all four benchmarks is still below the national average at 21 percent, it is up slightly from last year. In fact, the percentage of Michigan students meeting college-readiness benchmarks has risen consistently since 2008, when it was 17 percent. This increase is especially encouraging because every high school junior in Michigan takes the ACT as part of the state’s high school assessment. Unfortunately, only 3 percent of African-American test-takers in Michigan met all four benchmarks.

Similarly, Colorado experienced a rise in the percentage of students meeting all four benchmarks (from 20 to 25, between 2008 and 2012), as well as a slight rise in the percentage of Hispanic test-takers meeting all four benchmarks. Still, Hispanic test-takers in Colorado are less likely than Hispanic test-takers nationwide to meet these benchmarks. Even where college readiness is increasing, it’s not necessarily increasing for all groups of students.

With ever more students taking assessments like the ACT that provide estimates of whether students are ready for postsecondary experiences, we increasingly get a more complete picture of where states actually are in preparing all high school graduates for college and careers. These data should motivate states to accelerate their actions in ways that drastically increase the chances of success for all groups of students.

—Anneliese M. Bruner and Allison Horowitz