Too many Oregon high school students are not prepared for college and careers

With the billions of dollars Oregon is pouring into K-12 education you’d expect students approaching high school graduation would be well-prepared for college and careers. If you go by their just released scores on the ACT college entrance exam, too many are not. 

Although Oregon public universities no longer require ACT scores for admission, and many test dates were postponed or canceled due to the global pandemic, 42% of Oregon students in the high school graduating class of 2020 still took the test, according to comprehensive data provided by ACT. 

Their performance was discouraging, mores in the cases where their performance is actually getting worse over time. With a maximum possible score of 36, the Oregon students’ average Composite score was 21, continuing a largely declining score over the past five years. Oregon did better than the 20.6 national average Composite score in 2020, but the national score was the lowest in the past 10 years.

Some analyses have concluded that exams like ACT, if combined with a student’s grade point average and other factors, can help predict student success in college. On the other hand, some critics of the tests assert that the data shows standardized tests discriminate against minority and lower income students.

A key calculation from the ACT exams is a benchmark score. That’s the minimum score needed on an ACT subject-area test to indicate a 50% chance of obtaining a B or higher or about a 75% chance of obtaining a C or higher in the corresponding credit-bearing college courses. The courses include English Composition, Algebra, Social Science, Biology, STEM and ELA. 

The portion of Oregon students meeting the College and Career Readiness Benchmarks by subject in 2020 was: English – 60%; science – 50%; reading – 47%; math – 36%. Only 28% of ACT-tested students in Oregon met all four College Readiness Benchmarks.

Surely Oregon could do better.

ACT encourages educators to focus on trends over time, not year-to-year changes, because trend lines offer more insight into what is happening in a state. So here are trend numbers. It’s a lot of data, but it’s worth a look to get a good picture of where Oregon stands.

Over the past five years, the percent of Oregon test takers meeting three or four of the College Readiness Benchmarks has generally declined:


The percent of test-taking Oregon students completing a core high school curriculum (4 years of English and 3 years each of math, science and social studies) has generally been declining over the past five years, too:


So has the percentage of Oregon test-takers meeting or exceeding College Readiness Benchmarks in each course area.

Five Year Trends – Percent of Oregon Students Who Met College Readiness Benchmarks

Test YearEnglishScienceReadingMathMet all 4 Benchmarks

“Our findings once again indicate that taking core courses in high school dramatically increases a student’s likelihood for success after graduation,” said ACT CEO Marten Roorda. “That’s why we need to ensure that all students of all backgrounds have access to rigorous courses and that we are supporting them not only academically, but socially and emotionally as well.”

Declines in ACT scores have been particularly notable for minority groups in Oregon, with the exception of Asians.

Five Year Trends – Average Composite Score in Oregon by Race/Ethnicity

American Indian/17.717.717.416.515.8
Alaska Native
Native Hawaiian/18.217.617.317.117.2
Other Pacific Islander

Nationally, over half of ACT-tested underserved students met none of the four College and Career Readiness Benchmarks. “That’s unacceptable, and we must do better,” said ACT CEO Janet Godwin. “COVID-19 will only exacerbate these gaps and more students will miss out on opportunities to find success.”

The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education took particular note of the fact that for the third year in a row, the average national score for African American students dropped in 2020.

This year, the national average composite score of Blacks was 16.7, significantly lower than the 22.0 average score for whites. Only 30% of Black test takers were rated ready for college-level courses in English, compared to 69% of whites, and only 12% of Blacks were rated college-ready in math, compared to 46 percent of whites. In science, just 12% of Blacks were ready for college-level courses in science, compared to 45 percent of whites. In reading, just 19 percent of Blacks achieved the minimal benchmark for college readiness compared to 54 percent of whites.

The most striking statistic is that only 6% of all Black test takers in Oregon and nationally were rated ready for college-level courses in all four areas of English, mathematics, science, and reading. Whites were more than six times as likely as Blacks to be prepared for college-level work in all four areas.

The Oregon Department says its top priority is “Graduating our students college and career ready.” It’s clear there’s a lot of work to do.


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