A few weeks ago, officials at ACT released a report that breaks down the ACT test results of the 2018 graduating class. It examines participation and performance overall, as well as data based on college and career readiness benchmarks in English, reading, math, and science that indicate whether students are prepared to succeed in first-year college courses.
At the national level, the results are disheartening. The data—which account for more than 1.9 million graduates, or 55 percent of students in the 2018 national graduating class—show that the average composite score dropped from 21 to 20.8. Average scores in all four subjects also slid compared to last year (though only between 0.1 and 0.3 points).
As for the benchmarks, readiness in both math and English has been steadily declining since 2014. This year was no exception: 40 percent of graduates met the math benchmark, the lowest percentage in fourteen years, and 60 percent met the benchmark in English, the lowest level since the benchmarks were first introduced. Reading and science readiness levels were both down by 1 percentage point compared to the year prior, but generally show flat long-term trends.
In Ohio, the declines were larger. The table below indicates that Ohio’s average composite score and the percentage of students meeting readiness benchmarks in all four subjects declined significantly compared to last year.
It’s understandable that folks might see these sharp declines and start to worry. But in Ohio, the changes can be attributed largely to the increasing number of students taking the test. Among the class of 2017, ACT estimates that 75 percent took the test. But thanks to a change in state policy that required all juniors to take either the ACT or the SAT, this year’s percentage was much higher. Data provided by ACT estimate that 100 percent of the class of 2018 took the test at some point between grades 10 and 12. With such a significant increase in the number of students taking the test—including academically struggling students who may not have taken it otherwise—it’s understandable that Ohio’s performance would drop.
In a previous piece, I explained why statewide administration is good policy even though it may lead to overall declines. Those reasons are worth revisiting now:
Opening doors to postsecondary options. According to ACT, many students who were not considering college have gone on to attend after earning an encouraging score as part of a statewide administration. Many of these students were from traditionally underrepresented groups—minority and low-income students. Data out of Kentucky corroborate ACT’s findings and show that college-going rates have improved since it became state law in 2008 to administer the ACT. Illinois has also experienced a similar increase in overall college enrollment after it began statewide administration.
Providing useful and easily comparable information. ACT offers national and state-specific annual reports about results. In the past, these resources had limited usefulness because they included only students who chose to take the assessments. Now that all students are participating, the results could help identify achievement gaps, offer more details about progress (or lack thereof) over time, and serve as a comparison point for Ohio’s end-of-course exams and national exams like NAEP. Schools could also use these data to intervene with students in need of remediation before they graduate—which could save students and families both time and money.
Improving alignment to the state accountability system. Although the ACT isn’t included as part of the state’s proficiency and growth components, there is a state report card indicator that takes it into account: the Prepared for Success component. For this component, districts are graded on an A–F scale based on a point system comprised of a variety of measures, including points for each student who earns a remediation-free score on either the ACT or SAT. Previously, only students who chose to take these tests were accounted for; with full participation, we’ll now get a more complete view of how many students are being prepared for post-secondary education.
The decline in Ohio’s composite score and readiness benchmark percentages should be a sobering reminder for Ohioans that there is still plenty of work to be done. But it should not cause panic: The decrease coincides with a significant increase in test-takers, and the results are a far more wide-ranging picture of students’ achievement. Statewide administration ensures that all students have the opportunity to take the exam at least once, including traditionally underrepresented groups and those that may doubt their potential—and that’s good policy.
 The methodology for how ACT calculated 100 percent participation is not totally clear, but with the new state law in place it is certain that the percentage of test-takers increased significantly.