More students take ACT, achievement lags

California high school seniors outperformed their peers nationally in all categories of the ACT exam this year, according to data released Wednesday.

Nearly a third of 2014 high school seniors in California took the ACT. With a maximum possible score of 36, California's average composite score was 22.3. The national average was 21.


About 29%, or more than 113,700 California students, took the standardized exam, which tested English, math, reading and science skills. Many universities require it as part of the admissions process, sometimes along with the SAT or instead of that college entrance exam.

ACT Inc., a nonprofit based in Iowa that provides tools to measure college and career readiness, says that increased participation shows students' greater interest in pursuing higher education.

More than half, 57%, of all graduating high school seniors across the nation took the test this year. A total of more than 1.84 million students taking the test represents a 3% increase since 2013 and an 18% increase since 2010.

But the number of students taking the pre-college test is outpacing the number of students going on to enroll in schools. For example, 87% of U.S. students who graduated in 2013 indicated that they wanted to go to college, but 69% enrolled that fall.

Students may have every intention of getting into a school, but many of their scores don't make the cut. In California, 34% of students received satisfactory scores in all subject areas. Across the nation, that figure is even lower: 26%.

Minority students lagged behind their peers in meeting target scores; nationally, 11% of African American and 23% of Latino students hit at least three ACT benchmarks, compared to 57% of Asian and 49% of white students.

In California, 70% of white students, 65% of Asian students, 26% of Latino students and 21% of African American students met this benchmark goal.

Nearly half of all students in California stated that they were aiming for a graduate or professional degree, but the intent to chase higher education dreams isn't enough, according to ACT officials.

"High aspirations are wonderful, but in too many cases, students' actual preparation is
not aligned with those aspirations," Jon Whitmore, the chief executive officer of ACT, said in a statement. "We need to make sure that students are taking the necessary steps to reach their goals through effective educational planning, monitoring and interventions."

A statement from Bob Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, an organization that advocates fair and accurate testing, described standardized exams as "an exercise in stubbornness, not meaningful school improvement."

"Ending the counterproductive fixation on standardized exams is necessary to create the space for better assessments that actually enhance learning and teaching," Schaeffer said.

The goal of the ACT exam is to assess how prepared students are to tackle their first year of college courses and beyond.

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