Asian students show better scores, while other ethnic groups all see drops

A greater percentage of U.S. high-school graduates who took the ACT college-entrance exam aren’t ready for college-level coursework, with math readiness at a 14-year low.

ACT on Wednesday released its annual report, the Condition of College and Career Readiness, that shows only 40% of 2018 graduates taking the ACT met a benchmark indicating they could succeed in a first-year college algebra class. That is down from 41% last year and a high of 46% in 2012.

The percentage of students meeting college-ready benchmarks dropped slightly in all subjects tested—English, math, reading and science.

“Math specifically concerns me in a society that’s becoming more and more technological,” said ACT Chief Executive Marten Roorda. “The economy needs more students with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education, and good math skills are vital to the STEM orientation. There is a high risk for the U.S. economy coming to a slowdown or a standstill.”

Mr. Roorda said the math curriculum needs to be modernized with more time dedicated to the subject in schools.

The report looked at results from 1.9 million graduates that took the ACT test, just over half of the 2018 graduating class. That is down slightly from last year when just over 2 million took the test, or 60% of the graduating class. ACT officials said the decrease is primarily due to changes in statewide testing.

The SAT, the other major college entrance exam, was taken by about 1.8 million students from the class of 2017.

In all, 35% of graduates met none of the four ACT benchmarks that determine college readiness in subject areas, up from 33% last year.

The national average composite score for the ACT dropped to 20.8 for the 2018 graduating class, down from 21.0 last year.

States where more students take the test—including those that require all students to take it—tended to have lower average composite scores. That is likely because students with no intention of going to college and more underserved students took the test. ACT lauded states with high participation rates, saying the results can help determine needed intervention and increase the likelihood of student success at the college level.

Hispanic and black students continue to lag behind their white and Asian counterparts. Asians are the best prepared group as a whole, with their average composite score rising this year. Average scores for all other racial and ethnic groups went down.

Graduates identified as “underserved learners”—who are minority, low-income or first-generation college students, or a mix of the categories—tended to fare worse than others who weren’t.

In math, college readiness fell to its lowest since 2004, a trend that has worried math educators.

“We should be concerned as a country,” said Matt Larson, immediate past president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, an organization of about 60,000 members. “There’s a need to restructure how high-school mathematics teaching and learning is done in the United States.”

The council this year released a report, Catalyzing Change in High School Mathematics: Initiating Critical Conversations, focused on improving math performance. Some recommendations include ending a practice of placing students in different levels of a math course to ensure all get rigorous instruction and giving teachers time to collaborate and continue their professional learning.

ACT officials said students meeting benchmarks are more likely to earn a degree. In June, the testing organization defended the ACT after the University of Chicago dropped an admission requirement for students to submit either ACT or SAT test scores, becoming the most prestigious university to do so.

University officials said the change leveled the playing field for first-generation and low-income students. But ACT defended the usefulness of the test, saying it lessens subjectivity of admissions decisions by allowing comparison of students on a common metric.