North Carolina students trail the nation on ACT test

jstancill@newsoberver.comAugust 21, 2013 

  • North Carolina scores on the ACT

    SubjectN.C. scoreNational average
    Overall composite18.720.9

    Source: ACT

North Carolina’s high school class of 2013 scored last in the nation on the ACT, the test billed as the state’s new measure of college readiness.

North Carolina is one of only nine states that require every high school junior to take the ACT; in many states, it is taken only by students who plan to go to college. The results, released Wednesday by ACT Inc., show North Carolina scored lowest of all states in the average composite score across four subjects – English, reading, mathematics and science.

A year earlier, when only 20 percent of the class of 2012 took the ACT, North Carolina ranked above the national average.

The new scores for the class of 2013 show that only 17 percent of students met the ACT’s “college-ready” benchmarks in all four subjects.

Forty-three percent met the benchmark in English, while 33 percent met the goal in math and 31 percent in reading. The worst performance was in science, where only one-quarter of North Carolina students cleared the benchmark.

For years, the SAT had been the most widely used college admission test in North Carolina and many other states.

Several years ago, the State Board of Education devised a plan to begin using the ACT as the state’s measure of college readiness, in part because the test includes a science component.

Scores on the test will be used as one yardstick in the state’s accountability system for high schools.

Atkinson not surprised

State Superintendent June Atkinson said it wasn’t surprising that scores dropped after all students began taking the ACT. Previously, when college admissions tests were purely optional, about one-third of North Carolina students did not take one.

“The State Board of Education made a bold decision to measure college readiness for all students,” Atkinson said in a prepared statement Wednesday.

“When we began this process, we knew that our first scores would be lower, but it is important to get a true picture of where we are in order to improve. We know we have our work cut out for us in terms of raising student expectations and preparing 100 percent of our students for community college- or university-level work.”

The ACT is graded on a scale of 1 to 36, with 36 as the highest possible composite score.

The test consists of four separate exams in the four subject areas, plus an optional writing assignment.

The average composite score for all North Carolina students, who took the test as high school juniors in the spring of 2012, was 18.7 points. The national average was 20.9 points.

In the preceding year, when 20 percent of the class of 2012 took the test as juniors, North Carolina students’ composite score was higher – 21.9.

Atkinson pointed out that other states have seen similar declines when they went to full participation in the ACT, but later saw steady improvement.

State education officials have argued that requiring all students take a college entrance exam would ultimately lift expectations for students and encourage more to go to college.

Ammunition for some?

The ACT results may provide ammunition for those who think student testing has gone too far. The new Common Core standards, meant to raise the bar in reading and math instruction across North Carolina and other states, will mean a whole new batch of tests for students.

Earlier this month, Gov. Pat McCrory vowed to reduce mandatory testing, saying the proliferation of assessments was turning teachers into proctors.

Bob Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, said public opinion has turned against an “era of testing overkill.”

A Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll out this week showed that only 22 percent of adults polled nationwide believed testing has improved public education.

“Like so much about testing in the last 15 years, it’s a misguided attempt to use tests for a noble purpose,” Schaeffer said. “We want to encourage more kids to think about going to college, but taking tests isn’t the way to do it.”

Good curriculum and good teachers are the key to leading more students to the college track, he said.

“In some cases the additional testing builds up and drives some kids out of school,” Schaeffer said. “Either they’re bored to death by incessant testing, or they’re repeatedly told that they’re not good.”

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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