The high school class of 2003 earned an average composite score of 20.8 on the ACT college entrance exam, matching last year's total, but the test-maker warned that more than half of this year's students may not be ready for college-level coursework in either math or science.
Nearly 1.2 million high-schoolers took the nation's second-largest admissions test, a record number, up from about 1.1 million last year. In Illinois and Colorado, the exam is part of state-mandated testing.
The ACT scale ranges from 1 to the highest possible score of 36.
Richard Ferguson, chief executive officer of the Iowa City, Iowa-based nonprofit, was encouraged that overall scores remained steady even as the number of test-takers grew by more than 5 percent.
''We might expect the average score to decline, since we are likely adding students from a wider range of academic achievement,'' Ferguson said in a prepared statement Tuesday. ''Instead, we have seen remarkable stability in the average ACT score.''
However, this year the ACT also examined test scores to look at skills students will need for first-year math, science and English courses in college.
Researchers concluded that just 26 percent of test-takers were ready to handle the coursework in science and 40 percent in math. In English, 67 percent of students were prepared. The ACT said students who take more and tougher math and science courses in high school tend to score better on the exam.
''We've heard a lot of talk recently about the inadequacy of students' writing skills. However, it appears that the more critical problems are in science and math,'' Ferguson said. Both the ACT and its rival, the SAT, will offer an essay question in 2005, though the ACT's will be optional.
The results of individual test scores on the ACT and the SAT the country's largest entrance exam are used by colleges and universities to gauge a student's academic potential. The SAT, owned by the nonprofit College Board, will release its test results next week.
The average composite score for whites was unchanged this year at 21.7, but it improved for all racial and ethnic minorities for the first time since 1997.
Broken down by the ACT's race and ethnicity categories, Asian-Americans scored 21.8, up from 21.6 last year; Hispanics 19.0, up from 18.8; American Indians, 18.7, up from 18.6; Mexican-Americans 18.3, up from 18.2; African-Americans 16.9, up from 16.8.
Ferguson said black students were less likely than others to take tough, college-prep courses and ''often don't receive the information and guidance they need to properly plan for college.''
Looking at the results by gender, male test-takers had an average composite score of 21 with females averaging 20.8, a difference that matched past exam results. The ACT said 56 percent of those taking the test were female and 44 percent were male.
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