Record number of ACT testers raise averages

WASHINGTON (AP) — Scores on the ACT held steady in 1998 despite a record number of high school students taking the college entrance examination. It was the ninth straight year that the national average has either stayed the same or risen slightly.
A survey of those college-bound students also found few were choosing to become computer majors even though there is strong job growth in that field and this is the computer-literate generation heading to college, with laptop computers considered essential equipment on many campuses.
The average composite score was 21 for the 995,000 students who took the test, the Iowa City, Iowa, testing organization said. The score is the same as last year. In 1989, it was 20.6.
The trend is even more significant considering that a record number of students took the test, said ACT President Richard L. Ferguson.
Scores tend to drop as test participation rises, and 35,000 more students took the test this year than last, ACT reported. The number of students taking the test has grown by nearly 200,000 since the beginning of the decade.
About 60 percent of America’s entering college freshmen took the test, one of two major entrance examinations. Results from the other, the SAT, will be released later this month.
The ACT scores reflect the skills of less than half of high school graduates, not the academic performance or course-taking habits of everyone. Some 2.3 million people graduated from high school in 1995-1996, the last year for which numbers are available from the Education Department.
Ferguson said performance is improving because more students took higher-level courses in subjects covered by the ACT. Course work in calculus, trigonometry and physics helped boost scores.
Those who took just two years of algebra and one of geometry scored well below the national average of 20.8 on the math part of the test. Those who took just general science, biology and chemistry scored below the national average of 21.1 on the science reasoning part.
“This period of steady or increasing scores coincides with nationwide efforts to emphasize the need for more demanding college preparatory work,” Ferguson said. “That emphasis seems to be producing results.”
Although students are taking more math and science, most show little interest in computer science and computer engineering degrees that hold out a promise of good jobs. Only about 3 percent of the college-bound graduates picked computer and information science as their first vocational choice. Less than 1 percent said they wanted to be computer engineers.
The response comes as such jobs go unfilled. Employers are turning to ambitious high school students for some computer work, and high-tech firms are pressuring Congress to allow more high-skilled foreigners into the United States to work as computer programmers. The Labor Department expects computer jobs to more than double by 2006.
“Many students appear to have good underlying skills for computer-related careers, and their interests are similar to those of people who do well in that field,” Ferguson said. “Perhaps they don’t make it a vocational choice because they don’t know enough about their opportunities or they have a stereotyped image of what it takes to succeed.”
The report also noted a further narrowing of the gender gap, in part because more girls took advanced math and science courses. The composite score averaged 21.2 for boys and 20.9 for girls, compared with 21 for boys and 20.3 for girls in 1990.