ACT College Readiness Report Points to Growing Interest in Higher Education Among U.S. High School Graduates

Posted August 20, 2014

Interest in attending college continues to grow among U.S. high school graduates, according to ACT’s annual Condition of College & Career Readiness report. The report, which focuses on 2014 high school graduates who took the ACT® college readiness assessment, points to increased participation and high aspirations among the nation’s graduates, potentially leading to greater college access.

More than 1.84 million 2014 graduates—a record 57 percent of the national graduating class—took the ACT. This is a 3 percent increase from 2013 (despite a smaller total number of U.S. graduates nationally) and an 18 percent increase compared to 2010. This was the 10th consecutive year that the number of ACT-tested graduates reached a new record total.

“The increases we are experiencing are good news for the nation, as they point to growing interest in higher education among our young people,” said Jon Whitmore, ACT chief executive officer. “In today’s global economy, it is more important than ever for individuals to continue their education beyond high school. The skills needed to compete in the job market are becoming increasingly advanced.”

ACT data suggest student aspirations are high. The vast majority (86 percent) of 2014 ACT-tested graduates reported that they intend to pursue postsecondary education.

The report, however, cautions that having college aspirations isn’t enough. A similar percentage (87 percent) of 2013 tested graduates aspired to higher education, but only 69 percent actually enrolled in a postsecondary institution in fall 2013. That gap represents more than 300,000 students who fell short of their goal.

“High aspirations are wonderful, but in too many cases, students’ actual preparation is not aligned with those aspirations,” said Whitmore. “We need to make sure that students are taking the necessary steps to reach their goals through effective educational planning, monitoring and interventions.”

College Readiness Continues to Lag

The findings suggest many of these graduates will face academic challenges in meeting their aspirations, as college readiness continues to lag. Well under half (39 percent) of ACT-tested graduates met three or more of the four ACT College Readiness Benchmarks in English, math, reading and science, suggesting they are well prepared for first-year college coursework. In addition, nearly one out of three students—31 percent—did not meet any of the benchmarks, indicating they are ill-prepared in all four core subject areas. Those percentages are unchanged from last year.

ACT research shows that students who meet the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks are more likely to persist in college and earn a degree than those who don’t. The benchmarks specify the minimum score students must earn on each of the four ACT subject tests to have about a 75 percent chance of earning a grade of C or higher and a 50 percent chance of earning a B or higher in a typical credit-bearing first-year college course in that subject area.

Overall, 64 percent of graduates met or surpassed the benchmark in English, 44 percent in reading, 43 percent in mathematics and 37 percent in science. Readiness in science rose 1 percent compared to last year, while readiness in math dropped 1 percent. English and reading were unchanged. The average ACT composite score was 21.0, up by 0.1 point compared to last year.

Many Students Close to Readiness

The data also, however, point to opportunities for improvement in college and career readiness.

Many graduates who didn’t meet the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks were close to college readiness levels. Fifteen percent of graduates—more than 275,000 students—earned a score within 2 points of the science benchmark, while 14 percent (more than 250,000 students) were within 2 points of the reading benchmark, 9 percent (nearly 160,000 students) were within 2 points of the English benchmark and 8 percent (more than 154,000 students) were within 2 points of the math benchmark. The ACT is scored on a scale of 1 to 36, with 36 being the highest possible score.

“While a 2-point difference in scores is a significant gap for individual test takers, moving students such as these up to and even beyond benchmark levels should be achievable if we start earlier in identifying and addressing their academic deficiencies,” said Whitmore.

States That Test All Students Show Improvement

The data show encouraging growth in the eight states that have been administering the ACT to all students for multiple years as part of their statewide assessment programs (Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, North Carolina, North Dakota, Tennessee and Wyoming). Each of those states showed higher average ACT composite scores this year, with five of those states improving by a noteworthy margin (0.2 to 0.3 point) compared to last year.

A total of 11 states administered the ACT to all of their 2014 graduates. Three states (Hawaii, Louisiana and Montana) began testing 11th graders in spring 2013, so this is the first year in which their score results included all graduates. Five additional states will begin statewide ACT testing in the coming school year.

Fit Between Interests and Intended College Major

The findings indicate many students were planning to pursue a college major that does not fit well with their interests. For example, nursing and business administration—two of the most popular intended majors—are “good fits” for just around a third of students who planned to major in each.

ACT research has shown that a better fit between interests and college major can lead to improved persistence and more timely degree completion. In addition, ACT-tested 2014 graduates who selected a major that was a good fit with their interests tended to show greater college readiness than those who did not.

“Some students—perhaps many students—may be choosing a college major without considering or understanding how well it fits with their interests,” said Whitmore. “We urge counselors and advisors to talk to students about this fit to help ensure they are making informed choices.”

Achievement Gaps Persist

This year’s results continue to show large differences in readiness among the various racial and ethnic groups. African American and Hispanic students again fell significantly behind others overall; only 11 percent of African American and 23 percent of Hispanic test takers met three or more of the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks, compared to 57 percent of Asian students and 49 percent of Caucasian students.

“Achievement gaps can be stubbornly difficult to close,” said Jon Erickson, ACT president of education and career solutions. “We must ramp up our efforts to ensure that underserved students receive the same resources and educational opportunities as their peers. This is particularly important given recent media reports that this year, for the first time, the majority of U.S. public school students will not be white.”

Importance of Students Taking Core Curriculum

As in previous years, ACT’s findings illustrate that taking a core college preparatory curriculum in high school helps improve college readiness. Graduates who took the ACT-recommended core curriculum—four years of English and three years each of math, science and social studies—were far more likely than those who took less than the core to meet the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks in each of the four subject areas.

Overall, 73 percent of 2014 graduates reported taking the core curriculum, while 22 percent reported taking less than the core (5 percent did not respond). That translates to more than 400,000 students who could have taken a critical step toward college and career readiness simply by taking a core curriculum.

“Taking the right number of courses is very important, but recent ACT research suggests that requiring more courses alone is not enough; we must also make sure those courses cover the essential skills needed for success after high school,” said Erickson. “As more states strengthen their standards through Common Core or other initiatives, we should see college and career readiness levels increase.”

About the ACT

The ACT is a curriculum-based achievement assessment that measures the skills taught in schools and deemed important for success in first-year college courses. The content of the ACT is informed by results of the ACT National Curriculum Survey®, conducted every three to four years among thousands of elementary, middle and high school teachers and instructors of first-year college courses across the United States. The data obtained in the survey allow ACT to ensure that its assessments measure the skills most important for success after high school.

The national and state ACT Condition of College & Career Readiness 2014 reports can be viewed and downloaded for free on the ACT website at:  www.act.org/readiness/2014.