The newest batch of ACT scores shows troubling long-term declines in performance, with students' math achievement reaching a 20-year low, according to results released Wednesday.
The average math score for the graduating class of 2018 was 20.5, marking a steady decline from 20.9 five years ago, and virtually no progress since 1998, when it was 20.6. Each of the four sections of the college-entrance exam is graded on a 36-point scale.
"We're at a very dangerous point. And if we do nothing, it will keep on declining," ACT's chief executive officer, Marten Roorda, said in an interview.
The pattern in math scores is particularly worrisome at a time when strong math skills are important for the science, engineering, and technology jobs that play powerful roles in the U.S. economy, he said.
Matt Larson, the immediate past president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, said the math scores "are extremely disappointing, but not entirely unexpected."
In a report released earlier this year, the NCTM called for major shifts in the way math is organized and taught in high school, including focusing more deeply on fewer essential concepts. Larson said that states have made solid progress adopting good math standards, but the ACT results suggest that schools need to focus on improving curriculum and instructional practice to bring those expectations fully to life.
"As a country, we've reached the limits of what we can get out of standards alone," he said. "We need to pay more attention to what is taking place in the classroom."
While the trends in ACT math were worrisome, the scores in English didn't offer much cause for celebration, either. The average score for the class of 2018 was 20.2, the same as five years ago, and down half a point from the English-score high in 2007.
Students tend to score higher on the reading section of the test, which gauges comprehension, while the English section focuses on conventions such as usage, punctuation, and sentence structure. The average reading score for the class of 2018 was 21.3. Reading scores have hovered within a quarter-point of that level for the past two decades.
On the science section of the ACT, students in the class of 2018 averaged 20.7, down from 21 in 2017, and about the same as five years ago.
The national average composite score for the class of 2018 was 20.8, down from 21 in 2017 and about the same as in 2016.
Math and English scores drew the attention of the ACT by another measure, too: readiness for college-level work. The ACT's score benchmarks are correlated with the likelihood of earning Bs or Cs in credit-bearing coursework. And increasing numbers of students are falling short.
Only 4 in 10 met the math benchmark, the lowest level since 2004, and down from 46 percent in 2012. Six in 10 met the English benchmark, the lowest level since the benchmarks were introduced in 2002.
Roorda said there have been no major changes in the exam. But Jed Applerouth, who runs a national network of test-preparation centers, said his tutors think the ACT has been gradually getting harder, particularly in math and science. His company overhauled its math and science materials in response, he said.
Average composite ACT scores fell in all racial and ethnic groups except Asian-Americans in the past year. African-American and white students' average scores declined by .2 of a point and Hispanic students' by .1 of a point. Those of Asian-American students rose by .2 of a point, adding up to a 1-point gain from five years ago. Native American and Alaska-Native students had the lowest overall scores, an average of 17.3, and also the steadiest five-year decline of any group.
Whether similar patterns will show up in the latest round of SAT scores is an open question. Those results are scheduled for release next week.
The number of students taking the ACT declined for a second consecutive year, but the most recent drop was much bigger.
In the class of 2018, 1.9 million students took the college-admissions exam, a drop of 5.6 percent from the 2 million who took it in the class of 2017. The previous year, participation declined by 2.8 percent. Fifty-five percent of the nation's high school graduating class now takes the ACT, compared to 60 percent a year earlier.
This year's decline in participation would have been even bigger -6.2 percent-if ACT hadn't changed the way it calculates that number. This year, for the first time, it included 7,500 students from the class of 2018 who took the ACT during its July test administration. Previous score reports included only the six test dates between September and June.
In general, test scores tend to decline when the pool of test-takers gets larger and includes more students of varying skill levels. The most recent class of ACT-tested students was smaller, however, and its diversity was unchanged, ACT officials said. The fact that scores declined anyway is cause for serious concern, Roorda said. "We should see this as an alarm bell," he said.
Some test-industry watchers speculated that a portion of the drop in ACT participation could be explained by students returning to the SAT after initially avoiding the newly redesigned version that debuted in 2016, and choosing the ACT instead.
Robert A. Schaeffer, the public education director for FairTest, which tracks testing trends, also noted that more colleges are now going "test optional." But the vast majority still require students to submit SAT or ACT scores.
The possible effect of those factors on ACT participation are tough to measure. But it's clear that the drop is fueled by marketplace dynamics.
ACT has suffered key losses in its battle for market share against the College Board, which owns the SAT. All but about 1,000 of the 115,000-student decline in participation between 2017 and 2018 came from losing statewide contracts in Colorado and Illinois, which now use the SAT, said ACT spokesman Ed Colby. West Virginia also recently switched from the ACT to the SAT.
Roorda said the company is still seeing steady growth in district-level contracts, however. The number of school districts that administer the ACT to all students has risen from about 1,100 in 2016-17 to more than 2,000 this year, Colby said.
ACT is also working to diversify its operations by expanding into areas such as learning analytics and adaptive learning, Roorda said.