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ACT scores hold steady, Hispanic students make gains

More Hispanic high school students took the ACT exam than ever and increased their average score, test results for the graduating class of 2012 show.

“We’ve seen a dramatic growth in the Hispanic population and that’s an encouraging sign,” Ed Colby, spokesman for ACT, an Iowa-based nonprofit, told NBC News. The rate of Hispanic high school students taking the ACT grew to 14 percent, compared to 8 percent for the 2008 graduating class, he said. “The needle is moving.”

Average scores on the ACT exam held steady for the nation’s class of 2012 from results of the previous year and showed a slight improvement in the number of students who appeared ready for math and science at the college level, according to Jim Hull, a senior policy analyst at the National School Boards Associate’s Center for Public Education. 

It was the first time in which more than half of the high school graduating class in the United States took the ACT, an assessment that claims to measure college readiness in English, mathematics, reading, and science. Traditionally, students in U.S. schools are able to take the ACT during their sophomore and junior years, Hull said.

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, according to ACT officials.

The ACT test is a rival college entrance exam to the SAT. It's now taken by almost all students in nine states, and by at least 60 percent of graduates in 26 states, according to ACT officials. Results for the class of 2012 SAT scores are due for release in September, Hull said.

The national average ACT composite score was 21.1 (on a scale of 1 to 36), unchanged from the score for the class of 2011, Hull said. 

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Overall, readiness scores remained lower in science and math compared to English and reading. A record 1.66 million who took the exam met the national benchmark in math and 31 percent did in science, compared to 67 percent in English and 52 percent in reading.

Scores by minority students were mixed. Some findings for the class of 2012, as compared to the previous year's class:

  • Hispanic students made the greatest improvement, increasing their average score three-tenths of a point in just one year – from 18.6 to 18.9, Hull said.
  • The average African American student's score was 17.0, unchanged.
  • The average white student's score was 22.4, unchanged.
  • Asians had the highest average score, 23.6, unchanged.
  • 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.

“The data in this report provide continued insights that will help inform and guide our collective efforts to improve college and career readiness for the next generation of young people now making their way through the U.S. education system,” Tom Lindsley, director of advocacy for  ACT Inc., said in an email to NBC News.

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Critics of standardized tests, however, argue ACT results don't show an accurate picture of student learning.

“Rational policy-makers would look at the evidence and change course,” said Bob Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest, in an email to NBC News. His organization opposes the emphasis on standardized testing. “Yet, instead of abandoning what is clearly the wrong track for improving U.S. schools, policy-makers are actually putting more weight on standardized tests.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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