First, the good news: In just four years, the number of Hispanic students taking the ACT college entrance exam in Washington state has nearly doubled, suggesting that significantly more minority youth here aim to pursue higher education. And overall, Washington students scored two points higher than the national average on the country’s most widely administered college-readiness test.
Yet in other areas, the results, released Wednesday, underscored a series of troubling trends:
- Scores on the ACT have remained essentially flat for the last four years in Washington, boding poorly for student performance in college. Perhaps no surprise, considering the state’s lackluster rate for conferring bachelor’s degrees.
- More troubling, while 86 percent of high school seniors taking the test in 2013 said they planned to pursue higher education, only 74 percent actually enrolled in college, according to the report.
“Your numbers are lower than what we’d expect,” said Steve Kappler, head of post-secondary strategy at the testing company, pointing out that in Washington, only students who plan to enroll in college even sign up to take the ACT. Considering this, he said, “That number should be 95 or 100 percent.”
The 12-point gap equates to 1,648 students who’d planned to pursue a college degree but did not. “It’s a little bit of a troubling statistic,” Kappler said. “It’s what we call the ‘aspirational gap.’ ”
While most college-bound students in Washington opt for the alternative SAT entrance exam, nearly 2 million high school graduates across the country took the ACT last June (the acronym stands for American College Testing). Fewer than half performed well enough for first-year college work in English, math, reading or science, and nearly one in three — most of them black, Hispanic or Native American — failed to meet scoring benchmarks in all four subject areas.
Said Jon Erickson, president of education and career solutions at the ACT:
We must ramp up our efforts to ensure that underserved students receive the same resources and educational opportunities as their peers. This is particularly important given recent media reports that this year, for the first time, the majority of U.S. public school students will not be white.”
Perhaps most telling was a new metric calculated to detect the “fit” between students’ academic preparation, personal interests and career aims. In this respect, Washington students headed for science and medicine fared somewhat better that their peers: 61 percent of those planning to major in biophysics or biochemistry were well-suited to those fields, the testers found, compared to about 51 percent nationally.
But overall, testing critics interpreted the results as further evidence that a decade of intense focus on state exams — promoted as a way to reduce performance gaps between racial groups — has failed to deliver.
“The data show a total failure according to their own measures,” said Bob Schaeffer, director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, in an emailed statement. “Doubling down on unsuccessful policies with more high-stakes, K-12 testing, as Common Core exam proponents propose, is an exercise in stubbornness, not meaningful school improvement.”