Nationally, scores hold steady
WASHINGTON - ACT scores held steady again this year as high school students ended the 1990s with the highest 10-year gain ever in the average score of the key college entrance exam, according to a report released today.
The average composite ACT score for 1999 was 21 of a possible 36 for the 1 million high school students who took the set of tests, formerly known as the American College Testing assessments. The exams measure student skills in English, math, reading and science.
The average score for Montana students was 21.8, which ranked the state as 12th in the nation. The testing service said 54 percent of Montana's graduating seniors took the test.
However, the state average is slightly below Montana's average last year of 21.9. Montana scores have been above the national average since 1990, ranging from 21.6 in 1990 to 21.9 in 1997 and 1998. The national averages in that period were from 20.6 to 21.
This year's average score nationally is the same as last year when 995,000 students took the test, said the testing organization, based in Iowa City, Iowa. But 10 years ago, in 1989, the nation's average composite score was 20.6.
During the 1960s, national scores decreased on average a full point; in the 1970s, the average score fell an additional 1.3 points.
Scores didn't begin to rise until the '80s, and then by just one-tenth of a point over the decade.
Educators praised the 1990s increases because scores usually decline as test participation rises, but the number of students taking the test has grown by nearly 200,000 since the beginning of the decade.
"This combination of trends - more students preparing for college while achieving higher entrance-exam scores - should be welcomed by those concerned about American education," ACT President Richard L. Ferguson said in a statement.
The ACT report - which also surveys what courses college-bound seniors are taking and what careers they plan - reflects the skills of 36 percent of the nation's estimated 2.3 million high school graduates, and 60 percent of America's entering college freshmen. The test is one of two major entrance examinations. Results from the other, the SAT, will be released later this month.
The ACT is given mainly in Western and Southern states.
Of the states where more than half of graduating seniors take the test, the highest average composite scores were in Wisconsin (22.3), Minnesota (22.1) and Iowa (22). The highest score average overall was in Rhode Island (22.7 with 3 percent high school graduates tested); the lowest scores were in the District of Columbia (18.6, with 13 percent of graduates tested). Mississippi, which had the highest share of ACT test-takers at 82 percent, had the second-lowest average score (18.7).
Ferguson said performance overall is improving because more students took higher-level courses in subjects covered by the ACT. Ten years ago, 46 percent of the test-takers reported preparing themselves for college with the appropriate classes; this year, 63 percent of the test-takers have taken the core courses.
However, the test scores indicate that less than half of students are prepared for college classes. Typically students who score under 16 points on any part of the ACT will need extra help in their freshman year.
Even scores up to 19 suggest a minimal readiness, Ferguson said.
For example, on the ACT English test, 48 percent of students this year scored 21 points or higher, indicating they are ready to do well in college composition courses; 47 percent scored 22 points or higher on the reading test, meaning they will be prepared for entry-level history or psychology courses.
The report also indicates that:
n Few students were choosing to become computer majors even though there is strong job growth in that field and this is the computer-literate generation heading to college, with laptop computers considered essential equipment on many campuses. Just 4 percent of the college-bound graduates picked computer and information science as their first vocational choice, up from 3 percent last yea
n Most students (19.2 percent) prefer health science fields; less than 10 percent want to pursue education despite looming teacher shortages in many districts.
n The gender gap has closed to its closest point ever, but the boys' average score slipped a tenth of a point, from 21.2 to 21.1, while the average score for girls held steady at 20.9.