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Colorado’s ACT Flatline Has Me Worried

I feel like I’ve been alienating my fellow edu-nerds in recent weeks by spending so much time talking about the antics of the courts. Most recently, we examined a Colorado Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of the “Negative Factor” under Amendment 23. One could be forgiven for believing that I had suddenly changed careers and become the world’s youngest edu-lawyer extraordinaire. Thankfully, that’s not the case.

Today, we celebrate my triumphant return to the world of education policy data by taking a belated look at Colorado’s 2015 ACT scores. As most of you know, the ACT is taken by every high school junior in the state under state law. This year, that amounted to 57,328 kids. The ACT is an important test, as it provides the best picture of the “end product” our education system has produced after more than a decade of school for most students.

Unfortunately, Colorado’s ACT numbers this year are flat again. In fact, they’re a little worse than flat, with our overall composite score having fallen from 20.3 in 2014 to 20.1 this year (on a 36-point scale). Other than a very slight increase in science composite scores, scores across all subjects were down.

The bad news doesn’t stop there. The typical achievement gaps we’ve come to expect are still present, with Hispanic students coming in at a composite of 17.3, black students at 17.1, and English language learners (ELLs) coming in at just 13.7. White students, by contrast, achieved a composite of 21.7.

Low-income students also continue to fall behind their higher-income peers. Students eligible for free lunch achieved a composite score of 16.9, and those eligible for reduced lunch prices managed an 18.5. Kids qualifying for neither free nor reduced lunches came in at a composite of 21.6.

ACT also measures how students perform compared to preset benchmarks. These benchmarks are defined as the level of proficiency a student needs to have a 50 percent chance of getting a B in a first-year course in that subject, or a 75 percent chance of getting a C.

I think most of us would agree that is not a terribly high bar to set. Yet just 26 percent of 2015 test takers met these benchmarks in all subjects—a slight increase from last year’s 25 percent and 2011’s 23 percent, but still two full percentage points behind the nation overall. Well fewer than half managed to meet benchmarks in reading, science, or math individually. And exactly a third of test takers met benchmarks in none of the tested subjects. The only subject in which we beat the rest of the nation was science, with a staggeringly unimpressive 39 percent of students meeting that benchmark.

Chalkbeat put together a couple of graphs that illustrate the numbers nicely:

These numbers are shocking not because they represent some tectonic shift—either positive or negative—in recent years, but because they are a stark reminder that our education system simply isn’t getting a great many kids to where they need to be academically by the time they finish high school.

Sure, one could argue that because every high school junior must take the ACT in Colorado, many kids don’t even try on the test. There’s probably truth to that in some anecdotal cases, but presumably not enough to swing the overall trends. Those trends remind me that we must do more to make sure our children are adequately prepared to enter an incredibly competitive labor market through either continuing education or employment after high school. If we don’t, many of our kids have a very good chance of becoming one of the roughly 34 percent of students requiring remedial work in college.

We can do better than this. In fact, we must do better than this. We simply can’t afford to settle for mediocrity.

If you want to dig deeper into the numbers, you can find CDE’s spreadsheets here. You can also read ACT’s more detailed national report here, and its Colorado-specific report here. Note that ACT’s reports include juniors who took the test outside Colorado’s public school system as well as seniors who took the test, while CDE’s report only reflects public school juniors who took the test. You can also check out Chalkbeat’s helpful database to find scores for individual schools or districts.