Uh, Oh, ACT Exam Numbers Don’t Look Good


The college readiness of 2018 high school graduates taking the ACT college-entrance exam slipped this year in all subjects tested — English, math, reading, and science, with math readiness hitting a 14-year low.

“The negative trend in math readiness is a red flag for our country, given the growing importance of math and science skills in the increasingly tech-driven U.S. and global job market,” said ACT CEO Marten Roorda in a press release. “It is vital that we turn this trend around for the next generation and make sure students are learning the math skills they need for success in college and career.”

In contrast to the weak scores, student aspirations are high, states the ACT press release. Around three-fourths (76%) of 2018 ACT-tested graduates said they aspire to postsecondary education. Most said they aspire to a four-year degree or higher.

The average composite score for Virginia high school grads was 23.9 (on a 1-to-36 scale). That represents an incremental improvement from 2017, when the composite score was 23.8, which in turn was up from 23.3 the year before that. However, the percentage of students taking the exams was only 24%, down markedly from 29% in 2017 and 31% in 2016. It is likely that those who take the ACT exams have the strongest intention of going to college and, thus, tend to be the most academically qualified. A decline in the participation rate likely means that weaker, lower-scoring students are dropping out. With such a large drop, comparing year-to-year results is a meaningless exercize.

(Likewise, given the enormous variability in test-taking rates — ranging from 7% in Maine to 100% in Alabama — it is dangerous to compare performance between states. Nationally, 55% of college graduates took the ACT exams, almost twice the percentage of Virginia.)

The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) hasn’t released its analysis of the test scores yet, but in previous years, press releases emphasized how much higher Virginia’s test scores were than the national averages.

More Virginia students take the College Board SATs than the ACT exams, so ACT may not represent the full universe of Virginia students qualified to attend college. With that important caveat, let’s examine the ACT numbers. According to ACT, the percentage of Virginia test takers meeting college-level benchmarks were:

English — 80%
Reading — 66%
Math — 60%
Science — 55%

If we assume that the 76% of high school grads who didn’t take the ACT exams are not ready for college-level work in these subjects, what percentage of the 24% of Virginia grads who did take the exams are prepared for college-level work? Extrapolating from the ACT scores:

English — 19.2% are college-ready
Reading — 15.9% are college-ready
Math — 14.4% are college-ready
Science — 13.2% are college-ready

Undoubtedly, there are college-bound high school grads who took the SAT exams but did not take the ACT exams. It would be interesting to conduct a similar analysis of the SAT results to see how they compare. But even if those percentages represent a lowest possible bound, they are scary. Remember, 76% of ACT test takers nationally said they would like to attend college. If that percentage applies to Virginia as well, a large percentage of would-be college students is not qualified.

A number of questions arise:

  • What kind of academic preparation are Virginia’s kids getting in high school if so few are academically prepared to do college-level work?
  • How many academically ill-prepared students are attending college anyway?
  • What benefit are academically ill-prepared students actually getting out of college?
  • Are we encouraging ill-prepared students to attend college where they accumulate massive student debt but learn little?

I fully acknowledge that the numbers I highlight above represent are a worst-possible-case analysis. But they raise serious questions about the massive misallocation of human and financial resources resulting from our cultural fixation on sending everyone to college. You can be assured that the Virginia Department of Education, putting the best-possible spin on the ACT numbers, will tell a different story. I will report back when VDOE publishes them. 

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4 responses to “Uh, Oh, ACT Exam Numbers Don’t Look Good

  1. Your post here, Jim, is excellent. Now we are starting to drill down into reality. This allows us to ask serious questions that cut through the spin of the educational establishment that far too often has beeing sells very costly and quite useless products that their students cannot use, or benefit from. Hence the college experience of far too many students today at best wastes their time and money. At worse it hobbles their future to the point of destroying their future and ours too.

    For example, honest and serious educators uniformly say that most optimistically, only 20% of our students can benefit from a “real” four year college education. Others place that number at 10%; others at 5%. While the majority of the rest of our educators who are not servious or honest, but who hold positions of power have for decades been lying to us, or at best hiding the truth from us.

    These truths, however, do NOT mean that all kids who are not right for college cannot make valuable contributions to society. Quite the opposite, they all can make great and irreplaceable contributions to society, and themselves. But we must give them to training and skills they can best use for success. That is the obligation of any decent and moral society. But the way our educational system works today, it far too often does far more harm than good. The good news is that powerful and servious people in Virginia are beginning to see this reality and, better yet, they are beginning to act on it.

  2. Reed, the problem is that the level of math proficiency required for college admission is quite similar to the level of math proficiency required for the better technical professions. Calculating a lift for a shipyard crane is pure trigonometry. Math illiterates do not get to run a computer numerically controlled (CNC) machining tool. Do you want LP nurses who can’t calculate dosages?

    Learning math in particular (I remember this well) is all about practice and repetition and homework and the challenge to the schools (as I always note) is what is not being done or required beyond the time in the classroom. My high school trig and calc got me a nice SAT math score but only barely prepared me for the college version of the same class. Yikes!

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