Nearly one in three high school graduates who took the ACT tests are not ready for entry-level college courses in English, reading, math or science, according to new data released by the testing organization Wednesday.
Of the 1.8 million high school graduates who took the ACT in 2013, only 26 percent reached the college readiness benchmarks in all four subjects. Another 27 percent met two or three of the benchmarks, and 16 percent met just one.
"Our country's commitment to college readiness for all students is a good one, but we've got a lot of work to do," says Jon Erickson, president of ACT. "There aren't any clear signs we're making great progress there."
Most states as a whole are also largely unprepared. In only two states (Minnesota and Wisconsin) did more than half of the high school graduates meet three or more of the ACT benchmarks, and no state had more than 56 percent of ACT-tested students doing so. And in five states (Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky and North Carolina), fewer than one-third of students met three or four benchmarks.
In the last five years, students' scores overall – as well as in individual subjects – have remained largely unchanged, and in some cases have decreased. The only subject in which students made gains was science, increasing slightly from 31 percent of graduates meeting the benchmark in 2012 to 36 percent in 2013. Students have consistently scored higher in English than in any other subject; it was the only subject in 2013 in which more than half of students met the benchmark.
"It is concerning that while we keep calling this up and trying to address it, we're not making great progress," Erickson told U.S. News. "We get some small signs that we start to get optimistic and celebrate about, and then it takes a quick slide back a point or two."
Erickson says part of the reason scores have been mostly stable is that the pool of students taking the ACT has become more diverse over the last few years.
"The diversity of pools gets larger and larger and start reflecting more of the entire class," Erickson says. "It's a challenge to move everyone to the college readiness level."
Since 2009, the number of minority students taking the ACT has increased, dramatically in some cases. Over the past five years, 126,000 more Hispanic students and 43,000 more African-American students took the test, while the number of multiracial students who took the ACT increased 80 percent.
But those students are also struggling more than their peers. No more than 48 percent of African-American, American Indian and Hispanic ACT-tested students met the English benchmark – the subject in which all groups tested the highest.
"The gaps between minority groups are still too large," Erickson says. "While it's good that it's not getting larger, the bad news is it's not getting smaller."
But Erickson says there were a few bright points in the report. Although some students' career goals are loftier than their scores would indicate, their educational and career aspirations have continued to increase, as have ACT participation rates. In 2013, about 87 percent of all ACT-tested high school graduates said they want to attain at least a two-year college degree.
Additionally, Erickson said he is hopeful that students' scores will improve because many students who missed benchmarks did so by only a few points.
"We're looking at this as a new baseline and where to go from here, rather than comparing it to the past," Erickson says. "Sometimes it just takes a refresher, or one more course, or working with students on some skills that they haven't mastered."