Almost a third of this year's high school graduates who took the ACT tests are not prepared for college-level writing, biology, algebra or social science classes, according to data the testing company released Wednesday.
The company's annual report also found a gap between students' interests now and projected job opportunities when they graduate, adding to the dire outlook for the class of 2013.
"The readiness of students leaves a lot to be desired," said Jon Erickson, president of the Iowa-based company's education division.
The ACT reported that 31 percent of all high school graduates tested were not ready for any college coursework requiring English, science, math or reading skills. The other 69 percent of test takers met at least one of the four subject-area standards.
Just a quarter of this year's high school graduates cleared the bar in all four subjects, demonstrating the skills they'll need for college or a career, according to company data. The numbers are even worse for black high school graduates: Only 5 percent were deemed fully ready for life after high school.
The report's findings suggest that many students will struggle when they arrive on campus or they'll be forced to take remedial courses — often without earning credits — to catch their peers.
The data reveal a downturn in overall student scores since 2009. Company officials attribute the slide to updated standards and more students taking the exams — including many with no intention of attending two- or four-year colleges.
In terms of careers, the report found a chasm between what students want to study and where they might find jobs down the road. ACT compared federal Bureau of Labor Statistics projections with their own questionnaires and found insufficient student interest in the five fastest-growing industries with workers who require some college.
For instance, the government estimates that 17 percent of job openings in 2020 will be in education fields but only 6 percent of test takers told ACT they wanted a job there. Computer and information technologies will account for 11 percent of openings in 2020, but only 2 percent of students indicated they want a career in that industry.
The government estimates 9 percent of job openings will be in sales and marketing, community services and management fields. ACT reports that 2 percent of test takers are interested in sales and marketing, 7 percent in community services and 6 percent in management.
The ACT report is based on the 54 percent of high school graduates this year who took the exams. Roughly the same percentage took the SAT — the other major college entrance exam — and many students took both tests. Those who took only the SAT were not included in the report.
Under ACT's definition, a young adult is ready to start college or trade school if he or she has the knowledge to succeed without taking remedial courses. Success is defined as the student's having a 75 percent chance of earning a C grade and a 50 percent chance of earning a B, based on results on each of the four ACT subject areas, which are measured on a scale from 1 to 36 points.
Of all ACT-tested high school graduates this year, 64 percent met the English benchmark of 18 points that predicts success in a composition course. In science, 36 percent scored 23 or higher, the benchmark for success in a college biology course. In math, 44 percent met the 22-point baseline to predict success in an algebra course. And in reading, 44 percent met the 22 point threshold that indicates readiness for an introductory social science course.
Only 26 percent of students met the benchmarks for all four sections of the ACT test.
Of the 1.7 million students who took the 215-question ACT exam, as many as 290,000 were within 2 points of meeting at least one of the four readiness thresholds.
"There is a group that's on the fence," Erickson said. "With a little further instruction or motivation, perhaps some additional remediation or refreshing some of their past skills, they may be able to achieve that benchmark."
When the testing agency broke down the results by race, fault lines emerged. Just 5 percent of black students are ready for college work in all four areas. Among American Indians, 10 percent are ready in all subjects, while 14 percent of Hispanics are ready. Pacific Islanders post a 19 percent readiness rate for all four subjects. White students have a 33 percent rate, and 43 percent of Asian-American students are ready for studies in all four subjects.
Students from all racial backgrounds did best in English and worst in science.
Some states and school districts have begun requiring more students to take the tests. About 22 percent more students took the ACT test in 2013 than in 2009. In the past four years, ACT has increased its share of the test market, climbing from 45 percent of high school graduates in 2009 to 54 percent this year.
ACT said it updated its benchmarks for success in reading and science this year to better reflect what students need to know. The percentage of students with reading skills needed to succeed after graduation slid from 53 in 2009 to 44 this year, while science readiness scores climbed from 28 percent in 2009 to 36 percent this year. Both differences may have been caused in part by changes in the benchmarks.
In English, readiness scores slid from 67 percent in 2009 to 64 percent this year. In math, scores increased slightly, from 42 percent in 2009 to 44 percent this year. The benchmarks were not changed for either of those subjects.