Stagnant ACT and SAT Results Demand Educational Improvements

While there are certainly shortcomings of the SAT and ACT exams, they are still a benchmark to evaluate the American education system because millions of students take these tests across the nation. The results from 2014 are not good: Only 28 percent of 2015 ACT-tested high school graduates met college-readiness benchmarks in each of the four subjects on the ACT (English, reading, math, and science). Results from the College Board were not much better, with 41.9 percent of SAT takers in the Class of 2015 meeting the SAT college- and career-readiness benchmark. These were the lowest results for the ACT since the new writing section was added in 2006.

When you break the numbers down by race, they look even more grim. On the ACT, in reading, 75 percent of Asian and 75 percent of white students met the college-readiness benchmark, compared to only 47 percent of Pacific Islanders, 47 percent of Hispanics, 39 percent of American Indians, and 34 percent of African Americans. On the SAT, while 61.3 percent of Asian SAT-takers met the SAT college- and career-readiness benchmark and 52.8 percent of white students did so, only 32.7 percent of Native American students, 22.7 percent of Hispanic students, and 16.1 percent of African American students met the benchmark.

The argument could be made that the benchmark levels for college-readiness on these tests are to some extent arbitrary, except that according to previous ACT research, fewer than 20 percent of students who meet none of the benchmarks are likely to earn a two- or four-year college degree within six years. On the other hand, nearly 60 percent of students who meet at least three benchmarks are likely to earn a degree. In other words, we have a pretty good idea from the ACT of which students will graduate from college and which ones will not.

Despite research showing improvements in elementary level math and reading over recent years, somehow, these improvements have not translated to the high school level. Reformers by no means are calling for specific reforms targeted to help students improve on the ACT and the SAT, although the College Board’s alliance with the Khan Academy would seem to be a step in the right direction. Rather, these depressing numbers should remind us of our overall duty to improve American education.

“This should be a wake-up call for our nation,” said ACT Chief Executive Officer Jon Whitmore. “We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of U.S. high school graduates who won’t earn a two- or four-year college degree because they aren’t academically prepared to do so. In the increasingly competitive job market, where decent jobs are requiring more advanced skills and training, this is a huge problem.”

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