IOWA CITY, Iowa — Interest in attending college continues to grow among U.S. high school graduates, according to ACT’s annual “Condition of College & Career Readiness”report. The report, which focuses on 2014 high school graduates who took the ACT college readiness assessment, points to increased participation and high aspirations among the nation’s graduates, potentially leading to greater college access.
More than 1.84 million 2014 graduates — a record 57 percent of the national graduating class — took the ACT. This is a 3 percent increase from 2013 (despite a smaller total number of U.S. graduates nationally) and an 18 percent increase compared to 2010. This was the 10th consecutive year that the number of ACT-tested graduates reached a new record total.
“The increases we are experiencing are good news for the nation, as they point to growing interest in higher education among our young people,” said Jon Whitmore, ACT chief executive officer. “In today’s global economy, it is more important than ever for individuals to continue their education beyond high school. The skills needed to compete in the job market are becoming increasingly advanced.”
ACT data suggest student aspirations are high. The vast majority (86 percent) of 2014 ACT-tested graduates reported that they intend to pursue postsecondary education.
The report, however, cautions that having college aspirations isn’t enough. A similar percentage (87 percent) of 2013 tested graduates aspired to higher education, but only 69 percent actually enrolled in a postsecondary institution in fall 2013. That gap represents more than 300,000 students who fell short of their goal.
“High aspirations are wonderful, but in too many cases, students’ actual preparation is not aligned with those aspirations,” said Whitmore. “We need to make sure that students are taking the necessary steps to reach their goals through effective educational planning, monitoring and interventions.”
College readiness Continues to lag
The findings suggest many of these graduates will face academic challenges in meeting their aspirations, as college readiness continues to lag. Well under half (39 percent) of
ACT-tested graduates met three or more of the four ACT College Readiness Benchmarks in English, math, reading and science, suggesting they are well prepared for first-year college coursework. In addition, nearly one out of three students — 31 percent — did not meet any of the benchmarks, indicating they are ill-prepared in all four core subject areas. Those percentages are unchanged from last year.
ACT research shows that students who meet the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks are more likely to persist in college and earn a degree than those who don’t. The benchmarks specify the minimum score students must earn on each of the four ACT subject tests to have about a 75 percent chance of earning a grade of C or higher and a 50 percent chance of earning a B or higher in a typical credit-bearing first-year college course in that subject area.
Overall, 64 percent of graduates met or surpassed the benchmark in English, 44 percent in reading, 43 percent in mathematics and 37 percent in science. Readiness in science rose 1 percent compared to last year, while readiness in math dropped 1 percent. English and reading were unchanged. The average ACT composite score was 21.0, up by 0.1 point compared to last year.
Many students close to readiness
The data also, however, point to opportunities for improvement in college and career readiness.
Many graduates who didn’t meet the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks were close to college readiness levels. Fifteen percent of graduates — more than 275,000 students — earned a score within two points of the science benchmark, while 14 percent (more than 250,000 students) were within two points of the reading benchmark, 9 percent (nearly 160,000 students) were within 2 points of the English benchmark and 8 percent (more than 154,000 students) were within 2 points of the math benchmark. The ACT is scored on a scale of 1 to 36, with 36 being the highest possible score.
“While a 2-point difference in scores is a significant gap for individual test takers, moving students such as these up to and even beyond benchmark levels should be achievable if we start earlier in identifying and addressing their academic deficiencies,” said Whitmore.
States that show improvement
The data show encouraging growth in the eight states that have been administering the ACT to all students for multiple years as part of their statewide assessment programs (Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, North Carolina, North Dakota, Tennessee and Wyoming). Each of those states showed higher average ACT composite scores this year, with five of those states improving by a noteworthy margin (0.2 to 0.3 point) compared to last year.