January 15, 2018, by

Part 1: The Upward Drift in ACT Scores



In the late fall each year, the ACT and the College Board publish reports that provide lots of data about test results for that year’s graduating class. A few trends are worth noting from recent reports.  More students are still taking the ACT than are taking the SAT, but the shift appears to be leveling out because of the SATs gains in statewide testing.  ACT scores have increased each year for several years because of more high scoring testers, and more students are getting extended time on the ACT. Scores for those with extended time are also going up, and from our experience, extended time accommodations seem to be largely out of reach for low-income, first-generation students.  In part one of this blog, we will cover these recent ACT trends.  In part two, we will discuss score improvements on the PSAT from Sophomore to Junior year and what they mean for course selection, gender differences in scores on the ACT and SAT, and the SATs shift in focus away from subject testing.

More and more students are getting high scores on the ACT

Since last year, scores are up across the board by about 1% overall, but the top of the scale is seeing the largest gains by far.  The mean ACT score has fluctuated between 20.88 and 21.01 over the previous 5 years with no clear trend, but we are seeing an increase in top scores every year.  The number and overall percentage of students scoring a 30 or above has increased every year since at least 2013.

The percentage of students scoring a 30 or higher by class:

2013: 6.96%

2014: 7.63% (an increase of 9.6% from 2013)

2015: 8.08% (an increase of 5.9% from 2014)

2016: 8.20% (an increase of 1.5% from 2015)

2017: 9.01% (an increase of 9.9% from 2016)

Overall, the percentage of students scoring a 30 or above has increased by 29.5% since 2013.

The percentage of students scoring a 35 or 36 has increased even more significantly:

2013: 0.39%

2014: 0.46% (an increase of 18% from 2012)

2015: 0.52% (an increase of 13% from 2014)

2016: 0.63% (an increase of 21% from 2015)

2017: 0.75% (an increase of 19% from 2016)

In total, since the class of 2013, the proportion of students scoring a 35 or 36 composite has nearly doubled (92% increase).  This increase comes almost entirely from higher scores on the English and Reading sections.  For the class of 2016, 2.36% of students scored a 35 or 36 on English.  This rose to 3.34% for the class of 2017 – a 42% increase.  For the Reading section, the number of students scoring a 35 or 36 on Reading went up by 22% from the class of 2016 (2.16% of test takers to 2.63%).

More students are still taking the ACT than the SAT, but the margin shrank over the past year 

The number of students taking the ACT likely peaked with the class of 2016. Since then, even though the College Board has made huge strides in the number of students taking the SAT during a school-day program (as a state-sponsored, required test), the ACT remains  the more popular test.  In the Class of 2016, about 400,000 more students took the ACT than the SAT.  For the Class of 2017, that number decreased to about 290,000, likely because the SAT became the state test for Illinois and a few other states.  Overall, in 2017, about 2 million students took the ACT and 1.7 million took the SAT. More details on state tests available on Catherine Gewertz’s blog.

More students are receiving Extended Time on the ACT, and Extended Time scores are going up

The number of ACT students qualifying for extended time has increased significantly over the previous two years.  For the Class of 2015, 4.5 percent of ACT students (about 86,000) received extended time.  For the Classes of 2016 and 2017, this number has increased to just over 5 percent of ACT students (about 104,000 total). The proportion of ACT students with extended time has steadily increased for several years.

Percentage of ACT students receiving extended time by class:

2013: 4.01%

2014: 4.15% (3.5% increase from 2013)

2015: 4.47% (a 7.7% increase from 2014)

2016: 5.02% (a 12.3% increase from 2015)

2017: 5.06% (a 0.8% increase from 2016)

The total increase is slightly over 26% since the class of 2013.

Further, scores for extended time students are increasing and at a faster rate than for most other students, except for high scoring test takers.  Observe the following mean extended time ACT scores for the classes of 2013 through 2017:

2013: 17.5

2014: 17.8 (a 1.7% increase from 2013)

2015: 18.1 (a 1.7% increase from 2014)

2016: 18.0 (a 0.6% decrease from 2015)

2017: 18.7 (a 3.9% increase from 2016)

The mean extended time score has increased by nearly a full composite point (18.0 -> 18.7) in the last year, and by 1.2 composite points since 2013. Scores for extended time ACT students went up in all four sections of the test.

Although these increases are significant, the overall rise in ACT scores from class of 2016 to class of 2017 is largely due to more top scoring students.

The Take Aways

  1.  It is safe to say that as the ACT has become more popular it has attracted more top scoring students to its fold and scores have drifted upward. The increase in the number of students with time accommodations has exacerbated this effect. All this presents a challenge to the makers of the ACT: As scores drift upward, how do they prevent the ACT from appearing like the easier test?

The ACT Math section now frequently includes questions on topics that, until recently, had not previously appeared on the ACT, including questions on Slant Asymptotes, certain Data Analysis, Statistics, and Probability topics, and more advanced Matrix problems.  Many Algebra 2 classes do not cover these topics, which brings rise to questions about fairness in testing.

Similarly, the ACT English section has seen an increase in contextual questions, which many students find more challenging. As on the Math section, however, a more forgiving curve may negate the effect of the difficult questions.

While adding topics and passages that are more difficult may be an effort to slow the rise in scores, it appears to us that it is more likely an effort to counter the perceived easiness of the test — and to therefore help maintain the perceived rigor of the test.

  1. While the increase in the number of students receiving accommodations has definite advantages for those students with disabilities who manage to obtain them, there are clear inequities in the accommodations process. The process as currently set up is, in our view, biased heavily toward people of means. As an example, over the last twelve years, we have proudly served more than one thousand students for our non-profit Collegiate Directions (www.colleagiatedirections.org) and for other non profits and charter schools. Not even one of them has received accommodations on the SAT or ACT. In contrast, about 25% of clients we currently see for college prep tutoring in our for-profit work receive accommodations.

It can be prohibitively expensive for many under-resourced students to get tested for learning disabilities and qualify for accommodations. In fact, most students we see in through our work with first generation students in our non-profit aren’t aware that such accommodations are an option.

Bottom line: If the ACT and SAT are to continue to give accommodations to students who need them, they need to make the process more equitable. The current accommodations process makes it harder for disadvantaged students with learning disabilities to achieve high scores, and therefore puts a roadblock in their path to selective college admission.

In part two of this blog, we cover the annual report on the PSAT and SAT, gender based differences in scoring in the ACT and SAT, and the decreasing importance of Subject tests (to the College Board).

Check out a compiled version of much of the data referenced here that you can use to do your own analysis.


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