Less than one quarter of high school graduates who took the ACT have a 50% probability of getting a B in all four college-level subject areas of math, English, reading, and science, test results from the American College Testing Program (ACT) show.
“This year’s results, released Wednesday, reveal that more than three in four test-takers will likely need remedial help in at least one subject to succeed in college,” wrote the Associated Press on August 13.
Previous statistics, released this July, indicated that about 60% of America’s community college students are taking remedial courses, according to the Washington Examiner. In Maryland’s Prince George’s County, 83% of community college students were taking remedial courses, they report.
In contrast, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), a subsidiary of the Department of Education, found in a 2003-2004 survey that approximately 36% of first- and second-year college students had taken remedial courses. (The authors argued that these were artificially low numbers, given that the information was self-reported by students and restricted to the first two years).
Attending a community college doubled students’ likelihood of taking a remedial course in this study, with only 27.6% of first- or second-year students attending four-year colleges taking remedial courses, compared to 42.9% of those at community colleges, reported the NCES.
This year the ACT boasted record levels of participation. With 1.4 million students tested, the scores now provide a way to judge the academic proficiency of nearly half (43%) of this year’s high-school graduates.
Students’ average composite score dropped this year from 21.2 to 21.1 on a 36-point scale, and the number of students passing all four benchmarks dropped by one percent.
Much contention remains over the reasons behind this drop in college readiness. The ACT claims that since Michigan recently made ACT testing mandatory, this would have artificially depressed the scores.
Arguably, the minor change in average scores could have little effect in the long-term and may simply reflect natural score fluctuations. However, like last year, ACT administrators seem intent on putting on a happy face regardless of test outcomes.
“The fact that readiness levels remained stable this year is encouraging given the expanded base of test-takers,” stated ACT chief executive office and chairman Richard Ferguson in the ACT press release. “The percentages actually represent significantly larger numbers of individual students who are ready for college coursework in each subject area this year.”
While the numbers may represent an increase in the number of tested students, and therefore a larger number of students passing the benchmark, the proportion of tested students passing these benchmarks actually dipped slightly from 23% to 22%.
The Associated Press offered an alternative explanation for the lower scores. “Some of the growth is also coming from states like New Jersey and Connecticut, where students have historically taken the SAT exam, but are increasingly taking both tests to try to boost their college application credentials,” writes the AP. “That raises questions about whether some high-achieving students are propping up average scores nationally, painting too rosy a picture of how most students are really doing.”
The AP continues, “But ACT officials said they do not think that’s the case. They said about two-thirds of this year’s growth came from states where the ACT is the more popular test.”
According to the ACT, states with “double-digit percent increases in the number of graduates taking the ACT” included New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, California, and Oregon.
Over the last few years, the ACT has consistently sought to assure the public that high-schoolers are becoming more and more prepared for college. “The results also suggest a growing number of U.S. high-school graduates are prepared for college-level coursework,” the ACT wrote in 2007, a time when 23% of test-takers met the benchmarks in all four subjects. “The percentage of ACT-tested graduates who met or surpassed ACT’s College Readiness Benchmarks, indicating they are ready to succeed in specific first-year credit-bearing college courses, has improved over the past five years in all four subject areas.”
Actually, it fluctuated between 21% and 23% proficiency in all four subject areas, with the following breakdown: 20%, 21%, 21%, 21%, 23%. Last year this correspondent criticized the ACT for claiming a significant upward trend when the data remained inconclusive.
A 6-year breakdown in ACT scores lends credence the idea that this year’s dip is a statistical fluctuation: 20%, 21%, 21%, 21%, 23%, 22%.
In 2006, when the proportion of students who were college-ready in all four subjects remained level at 21% for the third year in a row, the ACT decided instead to focus on a different metric—the composite score. “The average ACT composite score has slowly increased since 2002, rising from 20.8 in both 2002 and 2003 to 20.9 in both 2004 and 2005. This year’s increase is the biggest in 20 years, with the average score reaching its highest level since 1991,” they wrote.
Ironically, the 2006 press release cheerfully celebrated scores below those found in 2000. “According to an announcement today from Richard L. Ferguson, president of ACT, Inc., steadily increasing or stable ACT scores have been the status quo only since 1990,” reads the ACT press release in 2000, celebrating the fourth year that average ACT scores had remained stable at 21 points.
More serious academic problems facing the nation, such as the ongoing achievement gap, received minimal attention this year. Like last year, only three percent of African-Americans met the benchmarks in all four subject areas, giving them a 1.5% chance of getting a B or higher in all four college subjects.
While African-Americans garnered an average composite score of 16.9 this year, whites had an average composite score of 22.1 points—a 23.5% disparity. Hispanics averaged 18.7 points on the composite score, a 15.4% disparity.
Bethany Stotts is a staff writer at Accuracy in Academia.