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Published: Aug 24, 2016 4 min read
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Fewer than four in 10 members of the Class of 2016 are college-ready in a majority of the subjects tested on the ACT, according to new data that test officials released today. Only 38% of students met the benchmark score in at least three of the four subject area tests, down two percentage points from last year.

Overall, the average composite score was little changed: 20.8 on a scale of 1 to 36.

The decline in share of students testing as college-ready is largely due to a change in the population taking the exam, the report says.

More than 2 million members of the Class of 2016 took the exam, an 8.6% increase compared to last year. As the ACT is taken by a broader group of students with different demographic backgrounds and academic preparation, including some who aren't likely to be college-bound, scores are expected to dip. State-level reports bear out that explanation: In the seven states that required statewide ACT testing of 11th graders for the first time this year, the average score declined significantly.

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The highest share of students, 61%, met the ACT college readiness benchmark in English, while science once again had the lowest rate, with just 36% of test-takers meeting or surpassing the benchmark score. More than a third of test-takers didn't meet any college readiness benchmarks.

The ACT says the benchmark is associated with a roughly 75% chance of obtaining a C or higher in credit-bearing, first-year college courses, whether at a four-year college or a technical school. The first-year courses and their corresponding benchmark scores are: English composition and a 16 on the English section, social sciences and a 22 on the reading section, college algebra and a 22 on the math section, and biology and a 23 on the science section.

As usual, test officials say the best way to earn a high ACT score is by taking a "recommended core curriculum" during high school—that is, four years of English and three years each of math, science, and social studies. Yet ACT research from 2008 also found that a student's academic achievement by 8th grade has more influence on his or her college readiness than anything that happens in high school. In other words, effective preparation starts before a student's teenage years.

The report also shows the effect that extracurricular activities may have on ACT scores. For B and better students, ACT scores increase as activities increase until you reach between three and six activities, at which point scores start to fall. There's a noticeable drop after hitting nine or more activities. The same rough trend holds at all GPA levels, though it's not as extreme.

Graduates in the Class of 2016 were the last students to take college entrance exams during the old SAT phase. In March, students started taking the redesigned SAT, and there's been disagreement between the two organizations over how scores on the new SAT correspond with the ACT. Scores from the new SAT exams taken in the spring were higher than expected, though those may not be reflected in the College Board's annual score report (generally released in September) since it's likely the first crop of students to volunteer for the new test weren't high school seniors.

For more of Money's coverage of college entrance exams, see Should You Take the SAT or the ACT?, ACT Adds New Low-Cost Test Prep Program, and Don't Waste Money on an Expensive SAT Tutor.