Average scores on the ACT exam held steady for the high school class of 2012 but the results show modest progress in the number of students who appear ready for college-level work in math and science.
The scores, being released Wednesday, cover the first-ever class in which more than half of graduates nationally took the ACT. Traditionally the ACT has been a rival college entrance exam to the SAT, but it is now taken by almost all students in nine states, and by at least 60 percent of graduates in 26 states.
The average national composite score was 21.1 (on a scale of 1 to 36), unchanged from the class of 2011. The percentage who earned scores that ACT calculates indicate they're ready for college in all four subjects — English, reading, math and science — was also unchanged at 25 percent.
But the percentage earning scores indicating readiness for college in science has increased from 28 percent to 31 percent since 2009, and in math from 42 percent to 46 percent.
Such numbers still aren't great — 28 percent of ACT-tested graduates failed to meet the college readiness benchmark in any of the four subjects. But the fact that overall scores have held steady even as the test-taking pool widens, and that math and science marks have improved, is considered positive.
"There's just all these countertrends that would typically pull scores down," said Jon Erickson, education president of ACT, an Iowa City, Iowa, nonprofit. "To hold scores is a good sign. To see science and math increasing the last five years — not rapidly but positively and steadily — those are two really good signs."
Erickson credited an aggressive push to improve teaching in the so-called "STEM" fields — science, technology, engineering and math — by states such as North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, Tennessee, Massachusetts and Iowa. The scores could also reveal some early fruits of states moving toward the adoption of a common core curriculum.
Still, overall readiness scores remain much lower in science and math compared to English and reading. Nationally, just 46 percent of students of the record 1.66 million who took the exam met the national benchmark in math, as did 31 percent in science, compared to 67 percent in English and 52 percent in reading.
Also alarming are continued and widening gaps between racial groups. The average composite score for white students was 22.4, up from 22.1 in 2008. Average scores for Asians have risen even faster, from 22.9 to 23.6. But the average composite score for black students remains substantially lower and has risen just 0.1 points, from 16.9 to 17.0.
Composite scores for Hispanic students were 18.9, up from 18.7 both a year ago and in 2008.
While 42 percent of Asians and 32 percent of whites met college-readiness benchmarks in all four subject areas, just 13 percent of Hispanics and 5 percent of black students did so.
"We still have a disparity in terms of the equity of education in our country, in both the equal distribution of quality teachers and quality curriculum across schools," Erickson said. "Hopefully things like the common core state standard movement will help level the playing field."
ACT defines its college readiness benchmarks as the minimum scores that predict a student has a 75 percent chance of earning a C or higher, or a 50 percent chance of earning a B or higher, in a typical first-year college course in that subject.
"While there are some encouraging signs in this new data, we have a long way to go towards making sure our students are prepared for success in college and that they are graduating ready to compete in the global economy," said Education Secretary Arne Duncan.