Average scores on the ACT college entrance exam held steady for the high school class of 2009, a sign of modest progress considering the pool of students taking the test continues to expand.
Nationally, more students earned scores indicating they're prepared to succeed in college in all four areas tested by the ACT: English, math, reading and science. However, the increases were slight, and more than three-quarters of graduates still fail to meet that benchmark, suggesting those who went on to college need remedial work in at least one subject.
Last spring's seniors averaged a composite score of 21.1, on the test's scale of 1 to 36. Sub-scores on English, math and reading were unchanged while science inched up 0.1 points.
The percent reaching college-readiness benchmarks in all four subjects rose to 23 percent, from 22 for the class of 2008.
"We're optimistic here. We see some early signs of not only commitment to the college readiness theme but some early signs of progress," said Jon Erickson, vice president of educational services for the Iowa City, Iowa-based, not-for-profit ACT.
A record 1.48 million students graduating in 2009 took the ACT. That's up 4 percent from the year before — despite a dip in the number of high school seniors nationally — and up 25 percent over four years.
The number of ACT test-takers is on par with the number reported by the rival SAT exam last year, and the exam appears on track to surpass the SAT in popularity. But whether it did so last year won't be known until the College Board releases SAT scores next week.
"We've got more in the pool," Erickson said. "Now we've got to get better swimmers."
The number of ACT test-takers is boosted because all students are required to take the exam in five states: Illinois, Colorado, Michigan, and for the first time last year, Kentucky and Wyoming. North Dakota and New Mexico are moving to mandatory ACT testing, and in 27 states a majority of graduates take the exam.
Elsewhere, however — particularly on the East and West coasts — the SAT remains more popular. In those states, the ACT is used mostly by students applying to selective colleges who think the ACT's more curriculum-based focus will play to their strengths. Most colleges accept either exam, and a growing minority no longer require either one.
The wide variations can make state-to-state score comparisons misleading. States requiring all students to take the ACT typically see average scores go down, at least initially.
Overall, the results fit a recent pattern of noticeable, if unspectacular, improvements by American students on various standardized tests.
In April, results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress — the only nationwide series of tests for K-12 students — showed students improved their reading and math scores, though high school math scores have stagnated.
On international tests last year, U.S. fourth- and eighth-graders gained on some of their toughest competitors in math and continued to hold their own in science.
However, the ACT figures also highlight a still-massive gap between the preparation U.S. students receive in high school and what's expected of them in college. That's especially true in science, where just 28 percent of 2009 graduates earned ACT scores showing they're ready for college-level biology.
By comparison, 42 percent nationally are prepared for college-level algebra and 67 percent for English composition. Still, on the English test, 40 percent struggled or failed with some basic skills: using the correct adverb or adjective forms, using correct prepositions, and subject-verb agreement.