Most Students Aren’t Ready for College, ACT Data Show

Published Online: August 21, 2013

Most Students Aren’t Ready for College, ACT Data Show


By Caralee J. Adams

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Most students are not adequately prepared to face the rigor of college, according to the latest ACT scores, which also show that the average composite score on the college-entrance exam fell from last year. That composite score dropped to 20.9 among high school students in 2013, the lowest in eight years. Since 2006, scores had been relatively flat at about 21.1, on a scale where 36 is perfect.

The report released today by the Iowa City, Iowa-based organization found just 39 percent of test-takers in the class of 2013 met three or more of the ACT college-readiness benchmarks in English, reading, science, and math. Nearly one-third did not meet any.

The benchmarks were adjusted this year, making direct comparisons to last year’s numbers difficult. They are intended to give students an idea of how prepared they are to succeed in a college-level course in a particular subject. In the past five years, there has been a 22 percent increase in the number of students taking the exam, which ACT officials attribute to some of the overall drop in performance.A record 1.8 million students took the test, representing 54 percent of the class of 2013, an increase from 52 percent last year.

College Readiness: Below the Bar A majority of students in the class of 2013—regardless of race or ethnicity—are not ready for college, based on benchmarks set by ACT Inc. SOURCE: Act Inc. “We are excited about the largest and most diverse group of students ever. It says really good things about the aspiration of students and participation,” said Jon Erickson, ACT’s president of education. “But I temper that by saying there are significant performance gaps among students groups and in subject areas that continue to be an alarming bell for all of us as educators and parents that will require additional attention.” A broader pool of students in the class of 2013 took the test. Now, 12 states are testing more than 90 percent of their graduating class. That includes students without college-going plans and may contribute to the lower scores, Mr. Erickson said.

Also, for the first time in 2013, students with disabilities (70,000 total) who have testing accommodations, such as extended time, were included in the overall reporting numbers, representing about half the growth in test participation. Their inclusion may also have contributed to the lower scores, he said. College-readiness benchmarks were developed by ACT to predict whether a student has a 75 percent chance of earning a C or higher or a 50 percent chance of earning a B or higher in a typical first-year college course. Students this year did best in English, with 64 percent achieving the standard. Forty-four percent met it in both reading and math, and 36 percent hit the benchmark in science. Just 26 percent hit the benchmark in all four subjects in 2013. (The English test measures punctuation, grammar, sentence structure, organization, and rhetorical skills.The reading test measures reading comprehension.)

For the latest report, ACT modified the reading benchmark up 1 point to 22 and science down 1 point to 23 to match expectations for performance at a national sample of colleges, Mr. Erickson said. Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, a Washington-based nonprofit that was instrumental in the Common Core State Standards, says the country continues to graduate large numbers of students who lack the academic skills to succeed in postsecondary education and training programs. “It’s been the same news for a long time. We aren’t moving the needle,” he said. Not as much is being done on a large scale as is needed to improve teaching and learning in high schools, which tend to be more resistant to change in the curriculum than elementary and middle schools, he added. “We need both patience and urgency.”


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