Improving College Performance and Retention the Easy Way: Unpacking the ACT Exam

ACT scores are increasingly popular
criteria for college acceptance, and are often used—mainly through the ACT’s
own “College
and Career Readiness
” reports—as gauges of college readiness. But how well
do they really reflect student achievement in high school, and how well do they
predict success in college? This NBER working paper separates the four subject
tests that comprise the ACT composite score—mathematics, English, reading, and science.
It finds that higher scores on the mathematics and English exams are correlated
with higher high school and college GPAs and with lower college dropout rates,
while reading and science scores provide virtually no predictive power
regarding student success. (These findings are robust, even when controlling
for student demographics, college majors, and the selectivity of the colleges
that students attend.) Going further, the authors conclude that, in considering
students’ composite ACT scores rather than their math and English scores,
colleges are “undermatching” some students, meaning that selective colleges are
not admitting the highest-performing students possible. The authors determine
that, if colleges looked only at math and English scores, as many as 55 percent
of students would attend different colleges without significantly disrupting
the racial and gender distribution of students in those schools, and top
colleges could reduce their dropout rates by 5 to 7 percent. This analysis is
important; but look quizzically at its conclusions. Instead of explaining why the
other subjects may be poor predictors of college success (science is
deprioritized on college campuses and reading itself is a prerequisite for
English), it recommends that only math and English composite scores be used in
college admissions. A sad curricular narrowing that would be, indeed.

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Click to listen to commentary on this NBER working paper from the Education Gadfly Show podcast


Eric P. Bettinger,
Brent J. Evans, and Devin G. Pope, “Improving College Performance and
Retention the Easy Way: Unpacking the ACT Exam
,” (Cambridge, MA: National
Bureau of Economic Research, June 2011).