2008 ACT College Readiness Report News Release

Posted August 13, 2008

Note to Editors/Reporters:
This news release and accompanying documents report information about students in the high school graduating class of 2008 who took the ACT. States, districts and schools receive similar information about their students. ACT releases national and state data; ACT does not release local district or school data. You must contact district and school offices for local information.
  • Percentage of grads meeting ACT College Readiness Benchmarks stable in math, reading, and science even as base of test-takers rapidly expands
  • Expanded pool of test-takers includes all high school graduates in three states, including Michigan for the first time
  • Increase in statewide and district testing offers access and opportunity to new groups of students, some who had not seriously considered college
  • Average national ACT composite score for class of 2008 is 21.1, down from 21.2 last year, but equal to 2006 average
  • Record 1.42 million test-takers, 9 percent increase from 2007
  • Improvement still needed in course rigor and course-taking decisions

IOWA CITY, Iowa—College readiness levels remained largely steady among U.S. high school graduates in 2008 even as a rapidly expanding base of students took the ACT® college admission and placement exam.

The percentages of ACT-tested 2008 high school graduates who met or surpassed ACT’s College Readiness Benchmarks in math (43%), reading (53%), and science (28%) were unchanged compared to last year and were either the same or higher than they were in 2004 to 2006. The proportion of 2008 graduates who met the benchmark in English (68%) dropped by one percentage point compared to the last two years but was equal to the percentages in 2004 and 2005.

Score chart 1

Overall, 22 percent of graduates met or surpassed ACT’s College Readiness Benchmarks in all four subject areas, down by one percentage point compared to 2007, but up by one percentage point compared to the three previous years.

The relative stability in college readiness this year occurred as the base of ACT-tested students expanded substantially. The total number of test-takers grew by 9 percent compared to last year, including the addition of thousands of Michigan students—many of whom may not have been planning to attend college—who took the ACT last year as part of the state’s new assessment program for 11th graders.


Sign up for ACT Policy Alerts to receive automatic email notification when ACT issues new research reports.

ACT’s College Readiness Benchmarks are scores on the four individual subject tests (English, mathematics, reading, and science) that indicate whether students are ready to succeed (highly likely to earn a “C” or higher) in specific first-year, credit-bearing college courses in those subject areas. These indicators are more informative and important measures of college readiness than average scores because they provide more detailed information.

“The fact that readiness levels remained stable this year is encouraging given the expanded base of test-takers,” said Richard L. Ferguson, ACT’s chief executive officer and chairman of the board. “The percentages actually represent significantly larger numbers of individual students who are ready for college coursework in each subject area this year.”

Score chart 2

“At the same time, we still have far too many high school graduates who are not ready for college-level work,” said Ferguson. “There is much work left to be done to ensure that all students graduate from high school with the skills they need to succeed at the next level.”

Pool of Test-Takers Expanding; Increase in Statewide Testing

A record 1.42 million members of the U.S. high school graduating class of 2008 took the ACT. This is a 9 percent increase from last year and a 21 percent increase compared to 2004. These test-takers represent 43 percent of all high school graduates nationally, up from 42 percent in 2007 and 40 percent in 2006. The number of ACT-tested graduates has increased in 11 of the past 12 years, including the last four years in a row.

Score chart 3

“The growth in the number of test-takers is good news, as we hope it will translate into increased college access,” said Ferguson. “More students appear to be considering college, an important preliminary step to college attendance.”

The 2008 test-takers included nearly all graduates in three states: Colorado, Illinois and—for the first time—Michigan. These states administer the ACT to all 11th graders as part of their statewide assessment programs. Colorado and Illinois began administering the ACT to all public high school juniors in 2001, while Michigan started in the spring of 2007.

Michigan graduates accounted for more than a third of the increase in ACT-tested students this year compared to last. Much of the remaining increase in test-takers came from states along the East and West Coasts, where participation has been surging in recent years. Many of these states—including New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, California, and Oregon—saw double-digit percent increases in the number of graduates taking the ACT.

Average ACT Score Down From Last Year, Equal to 2006 Results

The national average ACT composite score for 2008 graduates was 21.1, down from 21.2 last year. When the pool of ACT test-takers expands as it has this year, likely becoming more diverse in terms of academic preparation, it is not unusual for average scores to drop. Nevertheless, the national average score this year was equal to the 2006 average and higher than the 2004 and 2005 averages of 20.9.

Prior to this year, scores had been trending gradually upward over the past several years, with last year’s average score being the highest ever recorded. The test is scored on a scale of 1 to 36, with 36 being the highest possible score.

The average score on the ACT Mathematics Test this year was unchanged at 21.0. Average scores on the ACT English Test (20.6) and Reading Test (21.4) each dropped by one-tenth of a point from last year, while the average score on the ACT Science Test (20.8) went down by two-tenths of a point.

Test-Taking Pool Will Expand Further Next Year

The pool of ACT-tested students will grow even broader next year, when, for the first time, nearly all graduates in both Kentucky and Wyoming will be included. Both states began administering the ACT to their 11th grade public school students as part of statewide assessment programs this past spring, bringing to five the total number of states providing the ACT to all students. (In Wyoming, students have the option of taking either the ACT or ACT’s WorkKeys® exams, which measure workforce-related skills.)

An increasing number of school districts in other states around the country are also implementing initiatives designed to provide the ACT to all of their 11th graders as a measure of college readiness and as a part of their efforts to increase both college preparation and college-going rates.

“The greater use of the ACT in testing programs around the country shows the increasing commitment of states and school districts to ensure that all students graduate from high school with college-ready skills,” said Ferguson. “These testing programs can help increase college access, offering opportunities to new groups of students who might not have considered going to college in the past. They can also be a big step in helping students to start planning and preparing for college.”

ACT’s research shows that students who are ready for college are more likely to stay in school and graduate. When college readiness improves, retention and completion rates increase.

Colorado and Illinois, after beginning statewide ACT testing of 11th graders in 2001, each saw their average state ACT scores drop initially, as did Michigan this year. However, each has seen steady and significant score increases in the subsequent years: Colorado’s average ACT composite score rose from 20.1 in 2002 to 20.5 this year, while Illinois’ average score improved from 20.1 in 2002 to 20.7 this year. Statewide administration of the ACT has contributed to improvements in students’ college preparation and readiness, identification of college-ready students, college enrollment and retention levels, and college graduation rates in both states.

Greater Diversity in Test-Taking Population

As the pool of ACT-tested students has expanded over the past several years, it has also become more diverse and reflective of the U.S. population. African American and Hispanic students now account for 21 percent of the total tested population, up from 18 percent in 2004. The number of 2008 African American test-takers increased by 17 percent compared to last year, while the number of Hispanic test-takers increased by 23 percent. Caucasian students, who represented 67 percent of the testing pool in 2004, now make up 63 percent of the total.

The average ACT composite score for Hispanic students remained stable this year at 18.7, despite the rising number of test-takers. The average score for African American students dropped one-tenth of a point, from 17.0 in 2007 to 16.9 this year.

Among other ethnic/racial groups, Asian American students again earned the highest average composite score at 22.9 (up 0.3 point from 2007), followed by Caucasian students at 22.1 (unchanged) and American Indian/Alaska Native students at 19.0 (up 0.1 point).

Course-Taking Key to Preparation for Success

ACT score results again demonstrate the importance of taking challenging courses in preparation for success after high school. ACT-tested graduates who took the recommended core college-preparatory curriculum in high school—four years of English and three years each of math, science and social studies—were substantially more likely to be ready for college-level coursework than those who took less than the core curriculum.

For example, 50 percent of graduates who took the core curriculum met or surpassed ACT’s College Readiness Benchmark in math, compared to only 29 percent of those who took less than the core. And nearly twice as many “core” students as “non-core” students (27% to 14%, respectively) met all four College Readiness Benchmarks.

Although the benefits of taking the recommended core curriculum are well researched and documented, three in ten ACT-tested graduates still reported taking less than this core curriculum in high school.

“When nearly a third of ACT-tested students aren’t taking the recommended core curriculum, we have a problem,” said Ferguson. “We must send the message out loud and clear to students and their parents that taking the right coursework is the key to preparing for college and workforce training programs.”

At the same time, the data show that taking the core curriculum, in and of itself, is no guarantee of college readiness. Of the 2008 graduates who took the minimum core curriculum in English, for example, only two-thirds (68%) met ACT’s College Readiness Benchmark in English. And only 14 percent of grads who took the minimum core coursework in math—Algebra I & II and geometry—met the math benchmark.

“These percentages suggest that too many of our high school core courses lack the rigor they need to prepare students for college-entry courses,” said Ferguson. “In addition to making sure that students take the right number of courses, states and school districts must ensure that the courses these students take are of sufficient rigor to prepare students for college without remediation.”

About the ACT

The ACT is a curriculum-based achievement exam designed to measure the academic skills that are taught in schools and deemed important for success in first-year college courses. ACT scores are accepted at all four-year colleges and universities across the country. ACT scores are also used to make appropriate course placement decisions by the majority of four-year schools in the U.S. The ACT is administered in all 50 states and is taken by the majority of high school graduates in 26 states.