Only one in four college-bound high school graduates is adequately prepared for college-level English, reading, math and science, according to report released Wednesday by the ACT college admissions test.
Some 28 percent of the members of the high school class of 2011 failed to meet readiness benchmarks in any of the four core subject areas.
"ACT results continue to show an alarmingly high number of students who are graduating without all the academic skills they need to succeed after high school," the report stated.
The study also revealed a wide "achievement gap" between racial and ethnic groups.
In English, 77 percent of white students and 76 percent of Asian-American students met the readiness benchmark compared with 47 percent of Latinos and 35 percent of African-Americans.
In Reading, 62 percent of both white and Asian-American students met the readiness benchmark compared with 35 percent of Latinos and 21 percent of African-Americans.
In Mathematics, 71 percent of Asian-American students met the readiness benchmark compared with 54 percent of white students, 30 percent of Latinos and 14 percent of African-Americans.
In Science, 41 percent of Asian-American students met the readiness benchmark versus 37 percent of whites, 15 percent of Latino students and 6 percent of African-Americans.
Some 41 percent of Asian-Americans met the readiness benchmarks in all four subjects, compared with 31 percent for whites, 11 percent for Latinos and 4 percent for African-Americans.
"There's still a significant and an actually growing gap both at incomes levels and at racial/ethnic levels in the achievement of those benchmarks," said Jon Erickson, interim president of ACT. "This is a national imperative and a national concern."
Readiness was defined as a student having a 50 percent chance of getting a B or a 75 percent chance of getting a C in first-year courses English Composition, College Algebra, Biology and social sciences.
Bob Schaeffer, a spokesman for Fair Test, an organization which studies the use of standardized tests, said in a statement: "Proponents of 'No Child Left Behind' and similar state-level high-stakes testing programs, such as exit exams, made two promises: their strategy would boost overall academic performance and it would narrow historic achievement gaps between ethnic groups. But, academic gains, as measured by ACT, are stagnant and racial gaps are increasing."
There was some good news in the report. The percentages of all students meeting the benchmarks in mathematics and science increased from 2010 to 2011, by 2 percentage points in math and 1 percentage point in science. They remained the same for English (66 percent) and for reading (52 percent)
There is considerable debate whether ACT scores are accurate predictors of success in college. The Washington Post reports that an independent analysis of ACT results in Ohio "concluded that two of the subject tests on the ACT – reading and science – are bad predictors of college success."
Erickson, of ACT, said today: "We have done the research and continually update that on what level of skill performance is tied to successful performance in college. And while this is based on freshman year courses, these same skills play out in terms of retention in college and actual graduation from college as well."
More than 1.6 million 2011 high school graduates – 49 percent of the entire national graduating class -- took the ACT.
The ACT also released a ranking of states based on the highest composite ACT scores of its students in 2011. Massachusetts was first with 24.2, Connecticut second at 23.9 and New Hampshire third at 23.7. The lowest ranking states were Arkansas with an average composite ACT score of 19.9, New Mexico, 19.8 and Arizona at 19.7.
The highest possible score is 36.
The ACT report called on states to adopt education standards that "prepare all students for the rigors of college or career training program." It said the levels of expectation for college readiness should be comparable in all states, and that high school courses should have sufficient rigor to prepare all students for college-level classes.