- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 17, 2004


Average scores on the ACT college entrance exam rose for the first time in seven years, with the high school class of 2004 improving modestly across all subjects and most ethnic groups.

The nationwide average composite score rose 0.1 points to 20.9, on a scale from 1 to 36, after two years at 20.8. However, that remains below the average score of 21.0 recorded by every graduating class from 1997 to 2001.

Test administrators said the increase was significant, given that a growing number of students who do not plan to attend college are taking the test and likely weighing down average scores. In Illinois and Colorado, the exam is taken by all students under a state-mandated program.

But the latest figures, to be released today, also reveal no progress in two key, related areas: the number of students taking a core, college-prep curriculum, and the number scoring high enough on the ACT to indicate they will succeed in higher education.

“Unfortunately, the class of 2004 is no better prepared for college than the class of 2003,” said Richard L. Ferguson, chief executive of the not-for-profit ACT.

The ACT was taken by 40 percent of 2004 high school graduates, or about 1.2 million people nationwide. More students take the SAT, but the ACT is the predominant college admissions test in about half of the states and is accepted by most colleges.

The ACT includes English, math, reading and science sections, and next year will add an optional essay. Because it aims to measure mastery of a high school curriculum rather than general intelligence, some believe it is less “coachable” than the SAT. But many students still flock to ACT prep courses, and Princeton Review says its ACT enrollment is growing faster than for SAT courses.

Blacks again posted the lowest average scores of any ethnic group but saw their average scores increase 0.2 points to 17.1. Hispanics, steady at 18.5, were the only major ethnic group not to report an increase, though the number of Hispanic test-takers grew by 4 percent, the most of any ethnic group.

The latest results also showed the narrowest gap ever between male and female test-takers. Boys scored on average 21.0, the same as last year, while girls averaged 20.9, up 0.1.

Still, the ACT says too few students are taking a challenging high school curriculum. Class of 2004 graduates who took a recommended core curriculum of college prep — four years of English and three each of math, natural science and social science — scored 21.9 on average, compared with 19.4 for those who did not. But only 62 percent took such a curriculum, a figure that has not improved in eight years.

Just 26 percent of test-takers scored 24 or higher on the science portion of the test, indicating a high chance they can handle college-level work. Only 40 percent scored a 22 or higher in math — the comparable benchmark for that subject. Both figures are unchanged from 2003.

“Students must be made aware as early as possible that their key to college success will be the extent to which they take challenging courses in high school and study hard,” Mr. Ferguson said.

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