Historically low ACT scores ‘a red flag for our country’

Libraries offer many books to prepare for the ACT and the SAT Monday. FILE
Libraries offer many books to prepare for the ACT and the SAT Monday. FILE

Ohio leaders say tests are not the only way to measure college readiness.

Class of 2018 math scores on the ACT college entrance exam were the lowest nationally in more than 20 years, according to ACT officials, continuing concerns over students’ performance.

College readiness levels in English have also been trending down the past several years, according to ACT, dropping from 64 percent nationally in 2015 to 60 percent this year, the lowest level since the benchmarks were introduced.

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“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,” ACT CEO Marten Roorda said. “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.”

Ohio scores are more difficult to compare because the Class of 2018 was the first where the state paid for all students to take the exam. That means thousands of non-college-bound students who were not tested in the past were tested last year.

As a result, Ohio’s participation rate from 75 percent to 100 percent, but predictably dipped the state’s average composite score from 22.0 to 20.3. Of the 19 states like Ohio where 98 to 100 percent of students took the test, the state tied for fourth with the composite score of 20.3. Those states’ averages ranged from 17.7 in Nevada to 21.3 in Minnesota.

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Ohio Department of Education spokeswoman Brittany Halpin pointed to “a notable increase” of 2018 Ohio graduates who scored at the 90th percentile or higher on the ACT, compared to 2017 graduates. She said performance gaps between subgroups still need to be addressed, but having all students get a state-funded shot at the test is a plus.

“Comparing this year’s results to last year’s is challenging because of this shift, but there is an important benefit from the shift,” Halpin said. “Equity continues to be Ohio’s greatest education challenge, and disadvantaged students who may have previously not had access to the test now do.”

This news organization reached out to 10 southwest Ohio school districts Wednesday, all of whom declined to comment for this story or did not return messages.

ODE, Ohio Higher Ed and Ohio school districts have given validity to the ACT in recent years. The state agencies made a “remediation-free score” on the ACT one pathway to a high school diploma, and local school districts overwhelmingly chose to administer the ACT rather than the SAT.

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But there are questions about how well the ACT is aligned to Ohio education standards.

In the four classes before 2018’s influx of test-takers, Ohio struggled to improve its ACT scores. Students’ composite score had been flat at 22.0 each of those four years, and there had been slight drops in math (21.7 to 21.6) and English (21.4 to 21.2).

In those same four years when scores were flat or declining, Ohio’s “remediation rate” — the percentage of Ohio high school students who needed remedial help at Ohio public colleges — got better in math and remained at decade-long lows in English.

Halpin acknowledged the ACT is “an important indicator that is recognized by many institutions of higher learning,” but said that tests are not the only measure of college readiness.

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That issue has been at the core of Ohio’s ongoing graduation debate. Ohio is currently one of about a dozen states that requires most students to pass some form of standardized test to earn a high school diploma. State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria and the state school board are pushing for a new graduation system that de-emphasizes the tests by giving students a variety of ways to “show what they know.”

Others said Ohio should keep strong test requirements in place to push students and educators toward achievement, pointing to the lagging ACT scores released just one day after the state school board considered lowering the bar for 2019 graduation.

The Fordham Institute’s Aaron Churchill this month wrote that while test scores can’t capture important intangible qualities, they remain “important markers of whether students are on track for success later in life.” He presented data correlating schools’ high and low state test scores with corresponding college completion rates.

JANUARY 2017: Ohio schools ranked exactly average nationally

ODE pointed to the recommendations in ACT’s report, which include better resources for educators, quality testing and intervention starting in early grades, and an equitable, holistic approach to educating “the whole student.”

“The State Board of Education and Department of Education commit to helping districts meet the needs of the whole child and creating the learning conditions that ensure each child acquires the knowledge and skills needed to be successful,” Halpin said.

  • National ACT participation for the Class of 2018 was down for the second year in a row, at 1.91 million (55 percent), from a peak of 2.09 million for 2016.
  • The average ACT composite score nationally has stayed in a narrow range the past five years — 21.0 for the Classes of 2014, 2015 and 2017, and 20.8 for the Classes of 2016 and 2018. Statewide averages were as high as 25.6 in Connecticut and Massachusetts, where only a quarter of students (most college-bound) took the test.
  • Science scores for the Class of 2018, like math, were at their lowest mark in that 2014-18 span.
  • Composite scores dropped from last year in every demographic group except Asian students, whose average rose from 24.3 to 24.5. White students averaged 22.2, Hispanic students averaged 18.8 and black students averaged 16.9. Female students made up 52 percent of test-takers and averaged a 20.9, while male students averaged 20.8.
  • Students who reported taking solid core course pathways — four years of English and at least three years of math, social studies, and natural science — posted composite and subject scores about 3 points higher than students who did not take all of those core courses, according to ACT officials. That leads to a chicken and egg question — did they score better because they took those courses, or did some students not take those courses because they were already struggling academic performers?

BY THE NUMBERS

20.3 — Ohio's average composite ACT score for the Class of 2018. That's tied for fourth of the 19 states where at least 98 percent of students took the test.

38 — Percent of Ohioans in the Class of 2018 who met the ACT College Readiness Benchmark in math. That figure was 55 percent in English, 43 percent in reading and 35 percent in science.

9 – Percent of students nationally who earned an ACT composite score of 30 or better. Less than 0.2 percent earned a "perfect" composite score of 36.

20.5 – The nationwide average ACT math score. That's the lowest in more than 20 years.