PHOTO: TAYLOR GLASCOCK FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Nearly half of the two million high-school students who took the ACT college-entrance exam and graduated this year face a daunting reality when they get to college: They likely aren’t ready for the academic challenge.
While scores were largely flat last year, students who identified themselves as low-income or racial minorities, or expected to be the first in their families to attend college, fared dramatically worse than those who didn’t, according to new metrics breaking down the background of test takers.
More than four of five test takers who had all three of those “underserved” characteristics, as ACT calls them, showed college readiness on one or none of the exam benchmarks in English, reading, math and science. Only 9% met the benchmark in at least three of the four areas. That compares with 54% for test takers who didn’t mark that they had these characteristics.
The more “underserved” characteristics a student had, the worse they performed. Among students who identified having just one of the criteria—low-income, racial minority or first-generation college student—26% met three or four benchmarks; 60% met one or none at all.
“It’s quite alarming,” said Marten Roorda, chief executive of the Iowa-based nonprofit organization that produces and administers the ACT. “This is our future workforce. If almost half the future workforce faces these issues, we will have a big economic problem a few years from now.”
Students from poor backgrounds often have less access to rigorous coursework and top-notch teachers from the time they are young children, said Natasha Ushomirsky, director of P-12 policy development at the Education Trust, a nonprofit that advocates academic opportunities for poor and minority students. “All of these inequities in opportunity add up,” she said.
Colleges have been trying to fill the void by offering more academic and social support for students with such backgrounds. For example, beginning this fall the University of California system is matching first-generation college students with faculty mentors who were also first in their family to attend college.
The ACT is one of two major college entrance exams. Roughly 1.7 million students from the class of 2017 took the other, the SAT, last year.
All high-school graduates in at least 17 states, including North Carolina and Colorado, now take the ACT, and nationwide 60% of this year’s graduating class sat for the exam. As the test-taking population shifts from a self-selecting group of driven young adults for whom college is an automatic next step to a broad sampling of American high-school students, scores tend to dip.
The reverse is also true. Scores rose substantially in two states where the ACT is no longer compulsory: Michigan and Illinois.
This is the first year the ACT organization broke down college-readiness results by looking at students’ income, race and family college history.
Mr. Roorda said he expected there to be a divide between the scores of poor students whose parents didn’t go to college and those who attend wealthy schools and for whom college attendance is a near-certainty, but didn’t anticipate that the chasm would be quite so vast.
The exam tests students’ competence in math and science, as well as reading comprehension and English grammar. Twenty-seven percent of this year’s students achieved college-ready scores in all four subjects, about even with the past few years.
The ACT determines readiness through longitudinal studies, looking at what scores students receive in order to have a 50% chance of obtaining a B or higher, or a 75% chance of getting a C or higher, on a corresponding first-year college course.
For example, the group says, a high-school student would need to score at least a 23 on the science section of the test—on a 1-to-36 scale—in order to be deemed “ready” for introductory biology. Thirty-seven percent of all test-takers met that science benchmark this year.
Write to Melissa Korn at firstname.lastname@example.org