ACT Scores Remain Flat. Stop Worrying

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So scores on the ACT, the standardized test taken by many high school students for admission to college, remain flat.

According to an article by Caralee Adams in Education Week:

The annual results on the ACT college-entrance exams are out today and, once again, 21 is the magic number. The average composite score for students in the 2012 graduating class was 21.1 — the same it’s been for five years. A perfect score is 36.

The flat numbers, along with just 25 percent of test takers reaching the minimum benchmarks in each of the ACT’s four subjects, are not the encouraging results that many hoped for given the increasing focus on college- and career-readiness in the nation’s high schools.

They should, however, not be at all discouraging. As I’ve pointed out before, with regard to the SAT, scores aren’t supposed to increase over time. In fact, they go down.

As I wrote a year ago:

Because the SAT became required for college admissions, and high schools started to push all students to higher education, that meant that many students from less rigorous high schools took the test. By 1994 the average verbal score was 428. The average Math score was 478. And so in 1995 the College Board “recentered’ the test; the organization changed the scoring system so that median new score was again closer to 500.

The same thing is true for the ACT. In 1989, reflecting the greater number of students taking the ACT, administrators introduced the “Enhanced ACT,” a slightly different version of the examination, which also “recentered” the test, returning the average math and verbal scores to each other and moving the midpoint of the test back to 18.

Standardized test scores, in general, go down. Because it’s essentially an IQ test, a measure of general intelligence, the test results ought to remain more or less the same. About half of the students should score above 18, and about half should score below.

Any change in these numbers mostly has to do with how many students take them. That’s why ACT scores don’t skyrocket; not because our schools are terrible or children aren’t “prepared for college” (though those things might be true), but just because more people are taking the examination. More students mean less prepared students, who now being encouraged to go to college, often as district or state policy.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer