One reason why college admissions officials put so much weight on SAT and ACT scores is that the test makers put so much weight on what matters in college. Of course, a single exam cannot hope to encapsulate all of the skills, knowledge, and support that enable a student to thrive at the undergraduate level. The right exams can, however, try to forecast success in that first critical year of college. ACT addresses this with their annual College Readiness Benchmarks.
College Readiness Benchmarks are the minimum scores in each section of the ACT associated with a 50% chance of earning a B or better and approximately a 75% chance of earning a C or better in the corresponding college course or courses:
- ACT English is associated with introductory English Composition classes. The ACT Benchmark for English is a scale score of 18, which is 39th percentile.
- ACT Math is associated with College Algebra courses. The ACT Benchmark for Math is a scale score of 22, which is 61st percentile.
- ACT Reading is associated with Social Sciences courses. The ACT Benchmark for Reading is a scale score of 22, which is 61st percentile.
- ACT Science is associated with introductory Biology courses. The ACT Benchmark for Science is a scale score of 23, which is 70th percentile.
The benchmarks haven’t changed for years, but the outlook for each new crop of prospective students seems to become more discouraging each year. The Condition of College & Career Readiness 2018 looks at the 1.91 million members of the US high school graduating class of 2018 who took the ACT. The test scores suggest that slightly fewer members of this cohort are ready for college coursework this year than their peers were last year. The percentage of students meeting at least three of the College Readiness Benchmarks in the four core subject areas was 38% for the 2018 US high school graduating class, down from last year’s high of 39%.
English: 60% – – – Reading: 46% – – – Mathematics: 40% – – – Science: 36%
These numbers are down from the 2014 analysis in all areas except, surprisingly, Reading. Only 27% of the testing population hit readiness benchmarks in all four subjects.
On the other hand, any report that asserts that nearly three-quarters of high school students do not project as entirely college ready should be taken with a grain of salt. After all, approximately 67% of students return for sophomore year and those that do drop out often cite emotional or economic rather than academic reasons. In addition, the SAT feeds a different set of college and career readiness benchmarks, on which 47% of 2018 test takers met both Evidence-based Reading and Writing and Math benchmarks.
ACT shares a lot of valuable insight into a huge, diverse population of test takers, but seems blind to the limitations of its own means of assessment. In other words, comparisons of ACT College Readiness Benchmarks from one cohort to the next need to account for changes in the ACT itself. For example, the 2018 report states that readiness levels in math and English have steadily declined since 2014. What the report leaves out is how the ACT Math section seems to get harder every year. For all the ways the College Board has failed to deliver SATs of uniform and transparent difficulty, ACT Inc. matches them stride for stride. The College Readiness Benchmarks from both ACT and College Board highlight many areas of concern, but these diagnoses would carry more value if and when the test makers restore greater credibility and confidence in their diagnostic tools.