ACT achievement gap (poverty) worse than feared

After analyzing results from last year’s ACT college entrance exam, ACT’s CEO was shocked at how wide the achievement gap was between students who face disadvantages and those who don’t, the Washington Post reports.


Report on the 2016 graduating class (Source: ACT)

According to data released on Thursday, only 9 percent of students who identified themselves as being from low-income families, having parents who didn’t go to college, or had a race or ethnicity of black, Hispanic, American Indian, or Pacific Islander had scores that would indicate they’re ready for college.

Contrast that with the rate of strong college readiness among students who had none of those demographic characteristics: 54 percent, about six times greater.

“That kind of shocked us,” the Post quoted chief executive Marten Roorda as saying. “We knew it was bad, but we didn’t know it was this bad.”

The gaps in college readiness have persisted for many years, despite the nation’s investment in efforts to reduce them. “You could argue that those investments should have made a clearer difference,” he was quoted as saying, “and that’s not what we’re seeing.”

Bottom line: the gaps in college readiness reflect a wide difference in the curriculum or its rigor, as school districts or school buildings that serve predominantly white, high-income students and their families tend to have a wider array of course offerings, both in terms of the number of levels and the number and variety of courses. In addition, these schools often have teachers who specialize in one level of instruction or in a sub-specialty of the curriculum.

In addition, some small differences persist between boys and girls at the national level. Girls get slightly higher scores on the reading and English portions of the ACT, while boys get slightly higher scores on the math and science portions. But the differences balance out, resulting in both sexes receiving about the same composite score.

Boys tend to take more courses focused on math and science, while girls tend to take more courses focused on reading and English. It’s not about boys not being able to read or write, any more than it’s about girls not being able to do math and science. They just tend to take different courses in high school, for whatever reason—a reason that likely has more to do with personal likes and dislikes than with actual ability to learn a specific subject. Of course the scores differ!

I’ve also pointed out more than four years ago on these pages that test scores aren’t the final word in any individual student’s career, and very few actual students or parents care anything about an “achievement gap” that persists on a national scale. Politicians like to talk about achievement gaps and identity politics, but no individual child has an “achievement gap,” and all any actual parent really cares about is what their own child is doing. Differences with the children of other parents aren’t really part of the equation.

So our efforts shouldn’t focus on test score data, which tell us absolutely nothing and give us no clue how to improve education for any actual kid in any actual classroom in America, but rather on what we can do to improve the schools of students who are at a disadvantage. Furthermore, these data tell us nothing we didn’t already know or nothing we couldn’t have predicted. In fact, Voxitatis and other educators predicted these scores many years ago.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.