‘We Didn’t Know It Was This Bad’: New ACT Scores Show Huge Achievement Gaps

Nick Anderson, Washington Post, September 7, 2017

New results from the nation’s most widely used college admission test highlight in detailed fashion the persistent achievement gaps between students who face disadvantages and those who don’t.

Scores from the ACT show that just 9 percent of students in the class of 2017 who came from low-income families, whose parents did not go to college, and who identify as black, Hispanic, American Indian or Pacific Islander are strongly ready for college.

But the readiness rate for students with none of those demographic characteristics was six times as high, 54 percent, according to data released Thursday.

“That kind of shocked us,” ACT chief executive Marten Roorda said. “We knew it was bad, but we didn’t know it was this bad.”

The analysis of “underserved learners” was a first for the ACT, which is one of two major tests students can take to apply to college. The other is the College Board’s SAT.

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More than 2 million of this year’s high school graduates took the ACT, accounting for an estimated 60 percent of the class. Their average composite score was 21 out of a maximum 36 on the multiple-choice test of English, math, reading and science learning.

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Scores this year in Maryland (23.6), Virginia (23.8) and the District (24.2) exceeded the national average. But that was largely a function of participation rates. In each of those jurisdictions, slightly fewer than a third of graduates took the ACT, well below the national rate. With standardized testing, average scores often decline when participation rises because the results reflect a cross-section of students.

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Disadvantaged students face complex challenges connected to their families, neighborhoods and schools. The ACT analyzed how those students performed relative to benchmark scores for readiness on the test’s four sections. It found:

  • About 560,000 students had one of the three “underserved” characteristics. Some came from a low-income family. Some had parents who didn’t go to college. Others were from an underrepresented racial or ethnic minority. The share of this group that met at least three benchmarks — a level ACT says indicates strong college readiness — was 26 percent.
  • About 254,000 test-takers met two of the underserved criteria. Their strong readiness rate was 15 percent. About 114,000 more met all three of the criteria. They had the lowest rate of strong readiness: 9 percent.
  • More than half of the test-takers — 1.1 million — were not underserved. Fifty-four percent showed strong readiness, 14 percent some readiness, and 32 percent little or no readiness.

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