Math, science readiness
High School Seniors Weak in Math and Science Tests
By TAMAR LEWIN - New York Times - August 03 - original
Fewer than half of graduating high school seniors who took the 2003 ACT college entrance exams were adequately prepared for college-level algebra, and only about a quarter were prepared for college biology, according to the ACT results released yesterday.
While colleges, high schools and testing organizations like the College Board have become increasingly focused on improving students' writing skills, officials of the ACT said that math and science skills were the more pressing problem.
"We've heard a lot of talk recently about the inadequacy of students' writing skills," said Richard L. Ferguson, ACT's chief executive. "However, it appears that the more critical problems are in science and math."
This year, for the first time, ACT established college-readiness benchmarks, scores that would show whether students were prepared to earn at least a C in a college-level course. According to those benchmarks, two-thirds of the high-school seniors had the skills necessary for college English classes, but only 40 percent were prepared for college-level algebra and only 26 percent were prepared for college biology.
The situation is especially dire among African-American high school students: only 5 percent were prepared for biology, and 10 percent were ready for college algebra.
The ACT benchmark indicating college readiness was a score of 24 or higher on the science test, and 22 or higher on the math test, out of a maximum of 36. So many students lack college-level math and science skills, Mr. Ferguson said, because too few take challenging course work in high school. Only 45 percent of the seniors who took the ACT test had taken three or more years of high school science, including physics, and only 39 percent had taken four years of math.
"Far too few college-bound students are taking even the basic course work necessary to prepare for college, let alone pushing themselves by taking higher-level courses," Mr. Ferguson said. "This is one of the reasons why college remediation and dropout rates are so high."
Statistics compiled by ACT show that a quarter of the freshmen at four-year colleges do not return for their second year of school and that only half graduate within five years.
This year's average ACT scores of 20.6 in math and 20.8 in science were identical to last year's. But the scores have edged down since 1998, when the averages were 20.8 in math and and 21.1 in science.
The relative importance of writing skills versus math and science skills has become the major marketing difference between the two leading college entrance exams, the ACT and the SAT.
ACT, the leading college entrance exam in the Middle West, taken by nearly 1.2 million members of the class of 2003, tests students on science, math, English and reading. As of February 2005, ACT will include an optional writing test. But last month, ACT said that it expected no more than half of the colleges and universities to which it sent scores to require the writing test.
By contrast, the College Board's SAT, the leading test on the East and West Coasts, taken by slightly more students, does not test science skills. It will add a mandatory writing test in March 2005. In April, Gaston Caperton, the president of the College Board, announced the Writing Challenge to the Nation, a five-year campaign to increase the time and money spent on teaching writing.
"We are a membership organization, so we hear directly from high schools and colleges, and they all say writing needs a huge amount of work," Mr. Caperton said. "To say writing is an option to success in college, or success in life, is just not true. Math and science need to be improved, too, but writing is so important to everyone, whether they're engineers or in business or government."
On the testing of science and math, Mr. Caperton cedes nothing to ACT.
"We're the ones who have the subject matter tests, the SAT II's in biology and chemistry and physics," he said. "ACT says they have a science test, but it's just a small part of their test, a smattering of questions testing all the sciences."
Over all, on the ACT, Asian-American students earned the highest average composite score, 21.8, compared with 21.7 for Caucasians, 19.0 for Puerto Rican/Hispanic students, 18.3 for Mexican American/Chicano students and 16.9 for African-Americans. "Our research has shown that far too many African-American students are not being adequately prepared for college," Mr. Ferguson said. "It has shown that they are less likely than others to take rigorous, college-preparatory courses and that they often don't receive the information and guidance they need to properly plan for college."
There was only a minimal difference in the average ACT scores of men and women. Men had an average composite score of 21, while women had an average of 20.8. According to recent research by ACT, the difference is attributable to the higher number — and therefore broader spectrum — of women who take the test. In the class of 2003, 56 percent of the test-takers were female and 44 percent were male.
In Illinois and Colorado, where all public school students take the ACT, there was no gender difference in the average composite scores of men and women. Men continue to earn higher scores on ACT's math and science tests, and women continue to earn higher scores on the English and reading tests.