With so many critics screeching for an end to standardized exams, you’d think their primary objections centered around how anachronistic #2 pencils seem in a digital age or how debilitating the pressure of a high stakes test can be for parents. Sometimes, though, the real threat of testing lies in what truths the scores reveal. Even if you loathe the idea of college entrance exams playing a significant role in college admissions–even though you shouldn’t–you’ll want to consider the implications of ACT’s annual College Readiness Benchmarks report.
College Readiness Benchmarks are the minimum scores in each section of the ACT associated with a 50% chance of earning a B or better and approximately a 75% chance of earning a C or better in the corresponding college course or courses:
- ACT English is associated with introductory English Composition classes. The ACT Benchmark for English is a scale score of 18, which is 39th percentile.
- ACT Math is associated with College Algebra courses. The ACT Benchmark for Math is a scale score of 22, which is 61st percentile.
- ACT Reading is associated with Social Sciences courses. The ACT Benchmark for Reading is a scale score of 22, which is 61st percentile.
- ACT Science is associated with introductory Biology courses. The ACT Benchmark for Science is a scale score of 23, which is 70th percentile.
The benchmarks haven’t changed for years, but the outlook for each new crop of prospective students seems to become more discouraging each year. The Condition of College & Career Readiness 2019 looks at the 1.78 million (down from 1.91 million last year) members of the US high school graduating class of 2019 who took the ACT. The numbers do not look good:
- The national average ACT Composite score for the 2019 graduating class was 20.7, down from 20.8 in 2018.
- The percentage of students meeting at least three of the four ACT College Readiness Benchmarks was 37%, down from 38% in 2018.
- 36% of 2019 graduates met none of the ACT Benchmarks, compared to 35% of students in 2018.
- Readiness levels in English, reading, math, and science have all decreased since 2015, with English and math seeing the largest decline.
The test scores suggest that slightly fewer members of this cohort are ready for college coursework this year than their peers were last year, which happened to be the case last year as well. Especially at risk are underserved students, of whom just 9% who met all three underserved criteria–members of minority groups from low-income families whose parents did not attend college–met three or more ACT College Readiness Benchmarks.
As I’ve mentioned before, ACT shares a lot of valuable insight into a huge, diverse population of test takers, but seems blind to the limitations of its own means of assessment. In other words, comparisons of ACT College Readiness Benchmarks from one cohort to the next need to account for changes in the ACT itself. For example, the 2019 report states that readiness levels in math and English have steadily declined since 2014. What the report leaves out is how the ACT Math section seems to get harder every year and how other sections see gradual unannounced alterations that undermine even prepared test takers. For all the ways the College Board has failed to deliver SATs of uniform and transparent difficulty, ACT Inc. matches them stride for stride.
Nonetheless, when one of the most widely administered and carefully calibrated standardized assessments in human history captures a steady decline in basic mastery of fundamental academic skills like reading, writing, and problem solving, we should not restrict our ire to the exam itself. We might not like the numbers, but cold, hard data like this doesn’t care about feelings. A large percentage of American students planning to attend college next year will arrive with poor odds to do well in their core classes, which has profound implications for success in the critical first year of college as well as how long an increasingly-unlikely degree may take to earn. Look past grades inflated beyond meaning, and you can’t miss the troubling trend this year’s College Readiness Benchmarks report reveals: college readiness in graduating high school students, at least the aspects measured by the ACT, continues to decline.