ACT Scores Show Nearly Two-Thirds Not Ready for College
Only 38 percent of graduating seniors who took the ACT exam scored high enough to be “college-ready” in three of the four core subjects. The report by ACT, Inc., producers of the American College Testing program, shows a decline from 40 percent college-ready the year before.
The ACT aptitude tests given in reading, English, math and science are each scored on a scale from 1 to 36 and then averaged. The nationwide composite score averaged 20.8, down from 21 the previous year.
Some of the decline is due to more high school students taking the ACT. Almost 2.1 million seniors took the ACT this last year compared to 1.9 million the prior year. As some states have begun testing all students, inclusion of lower performing students was expected to depress scores.
ACT reports that in 2016, 20 states funded ACT testing for all of their public school students: Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
The highest-scoring states of Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, New York and Delaware had less than 25 percent of their seniors take the test. If only the academic elite take the test, the average scores will be high. The lowest performing states were Alabama, Hawaii, South Carolina, Mississippi and Nevada where essentially all of their seniors take the test.
Kansas had 74 percent of students taking the test and the Kansas average composite score was 21.9. This compares with a national average of 64 percent and an average score of 20.8.
With the exception of the math section, the ACT is mostly an aptitude test that measures overall skills in those fields, rather than an achievement test. Therefore, the ACT does not drive the school curriculum and it is very difficult for teachers to teach-to-the-test. This stands in contrast to the new SAT that has aligned with national curricula. Fortunately, twice as many students take the ACT compared to the SAT.
Some years ago, then Kansas Education Commissioner Posny described the ACT as a possible test for the State Board to require statewide. The advantage would be that some Kansas students who had not considered college would discover that they were college-able. I supported a statewide ACT requirement if this test replaced all other external assessments, because it would end the teach-to-the-test pressure that has seriously damaged our public schools. The State Board of Education never really considered a statewide ACT requirement due, among other factors, to the high cost of paying for every student to take the test. Nevertheless, the drive to send every high school graduate to college has resulted in three-fourths of Kansas students taking the ACT anyway.
And that is where the ACT data are particularly damning. Only 38 percent of American seniors are prepared for college course work. Yet the President, the Kansas Governor, and national agencies such as the Lumina Foundation are driving public universities to graduate 60 percent of college students. As a result, many public high schools have inflated grades to the point where it is impossible to fail unless a student stops breathing. And the pressure to admit, retain and graduate every tuition-paying warm body in public universities is rapidly becoming Job One. Nevertheless, the likelihood of these students—who need substantial remedial course work—being able to complete a genuine and rigorous college degree remains low.
The consequences are fairly clear: the student who walks across stage to receive a degree they earned will be followed by several who receive the same degree but have done far less work. The ACT scores show that our universities should be admitting fewer students, not more. The refusal of our educational leadership to recognize these ACT numbers resembles a Vietnam War-era saying: “In order to save the university, we had to destroy it.”