California ACT scores exceed U.S.

This year’s high school graduates from California outperformed the nation on the ACT, and on average are better prepared for college work, according to the annual report of the college entrance exam. But in the same breath, consider two qualifiers: Only a quarter of California high school students took the ACT, compared with 49 percent nationwide, so it’s a self-selected group; and, while improving, the nation’s test results aren’t a lot to brag about.

In California, 30 percent of the Class of ’11 had high enough scores to be deemed ready for college in all four parts of the ACT exam: English, reading, math and science, compared with a record high 25 percent of students nationwide. In 2007, 27 percent of California students were college ready in all four. ACT defines college ready as having at least 75 percent odds of getting a C and 50 percent chance of a B in a first-year college course at a two- or four-year college.

Broken down by subject matter:

  • 72 percent of California students were deemed ready for freshman English composition (66 percent nationwide);
  • 57 percent were ready for a history or social science course (52 percent nationwide);
  • 57 percent were ready for college Algebra (45 percent nationwide);
  • 34 percent were ready for Biology or a college science course (30 percent nationwide);
  • 48 percent of California students met three or four of the college readiness benchmarks compared with only 40 percent nationwide. But 23 percent — nearly a quarter — were not ready for one college course, compared with 28 percent nationwide.

The ACT is more popular in the Midwest and South than in the West and Northeast. While the number of ACT takers exceeded the SAT for the first time this year, in California, 99,000 students took the ACT while 211,000 took the SAT. The SAT scores won’t be available until next month, but the 2010 scores for California closely mirrored those of the nation, except for in writing, where California students did significantly better.

ACT is becoming more popular in California, with a 60 percent increase in takers since 2007. During that time, Hispanics have registered the sharpest increase, rising from 21 percent of California test takers to 35 percent in four years.

Both SAT and ACT are accepted by the University of California and California State University. The ACT is more of a curriculum-based test of high school knowledge.

The disparities in achievements among ethnicities that start in early elementary grades not surprisingly follow the same patterns with the ACT (see chart).

ACT determined college readiness based on scores in four subject areas. Here is the ethnic and racial breakdown for the class of 2011 in California (source: ACT)
ACT determined college readiness based on scores in four subject areas. Here is the ethnic and racial breakdown for the class of 2011 in California. Click to enlarge. (source: ACT)

Only 10 percent of African-American and 26 percent of Hispanic Californians are college-ready in science, compared with 49 percent of Asians and 51 percent of White students. While 69 percent of White and 65 percent of Asian students have met three or four of the college-readiness benchmarks, only 19 percent of African-American and 25 percent of Hispanics have.

ACT found that students who take what it calls a core curriculum – comparable to the A-G course load required for admission to a UC or CSU campus – are far more likely to be prepared for a post-secondary education. And it said that the best predictor of college readiness would be the level of achievement in middle school. “If students are to be ready for college or career when they graduate, their progress must be monitored closely so that deficiencies in foundational skills can be identified and remediated early, in upper elementary and middle school,” the report said.

ACT also looked at the future job market and student aspirations and found an ominous disconnect in California, especially for Silicon Valley (see graph).

California students' career iinterests appear out of sync with the fast-growing job opportunities. (source: ACT).
California students' career interests appear out of sync with fast-growing job opportunities. Click to enlarge (source: ACT).

The five fastest growing careers in California demanding at least an associate’s degree will be, in order, education, management, computer/information specialties, marketing/sales and community services. Ten percent of new jobs by 2018 will be in the area of computer and information. But only 2 percent of students who took the ACT expressed interest in this field.

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (, one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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