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The Evolution of ACT Research: Identifying Trends, Uncovering Solutions

As ACT marks its 60th anniversary, the organization is recognized as an authority that provides high-quality educational and workforce solutions grounded in research.

ACT’s research serves an integral role in ensuring that ACT products and services are reliable, valid, efficacious, and fair, while providing thought leadership on educational issues and trends to customers and advocates.

Throughout its 60 years, ACT achieved a number of major milestones (see timeline below) that demonstrate both the consistency and evolution of our research.

As we reflect on these milestones, four themes encapsulating ACT research emerge: mission-driven, holistic, actionable, and transparent.

Mission-Driven: ACT is dedicated to helping people achieve education and workplace success. This is evident in our research, which has focused on the relationship between performance on ACT’s assessments and both educational AND workplace success. Our assessments, research, empirically-derived benchmarks, and standardized reporting provide a reliable and valid signal of whether individuals are on track for college and career readiness, starting in the 3rd grade with ACT® Aspire® and into the workforce with ACT® WorkKeys® and the ACT® WorkKeys® National Career Readiness Certificate ®.

In our most recent evolution from an assessment company to a learning, measurement, and navigation organization, ACT’s Efficacy Framework and efficacy research agenda for ACT learning solutions reinforce our commitment to both identify whether or not individuals are on track for success, and offer efficacious solutions to help individuals who are not on track get there.

Holistic: Our research clearly indicates that the knowledge and skills essential for success in school and at work extend beyond the core academic skills of math, ELA, and science. Even though the Holistic Framework was released only five years ago, this line of thinking has a long history within ACT research, tracing back to the 1970s with the introduction of the Interest Inventory, and later the creation of the interest-major fit index, and then into the 1990s and 2000s with foundational research on SEL skills and the development of ACT® Engage® and now ACT® Tessera®.

Actionable: The insights we provide to our stakeholders—insights that are driven by data and research findings—are key to delivering value to students, parents, educators, policymakers, and employers. This is accomplished by going beyond simply reporting scores to providing score interpretations that are actionable. These include our College Readiness Benchmarks, together with the STEM benchmark, Progress towards Career Readiness indicator, Interest-Major Fit index, World-of-Work Map, ACT Profile for Success, Text Complexity indicator, Engage retention and success indices, and EOS predictive modeling indices, as well as our practitioner-focused research services and publications, such as the College Choice Report and the Higher Education Research Digest.

Transparent: Transparency is one of the hallmarks of ACT research. This is evident in the reporting of assessment data since the inception of the organization, the publishing of research findings and technical documentation, and most notably making ACT data publicly available either through online interactive dashboards or through formal data sharing requests.

Data from the Ten Year Trends Database, a publicly available Tableau dashboard with information on the 2009-2018 ACT-tested high school graduating classes.

Major Milestones

1963: Began annual ACT Profile reporting, providing aggregate information on ACT-tested students.

1965: Created the ACT Research Publication Series; A Description of American College Freshmen was the first ACT Research Report. Two fun findings about 1962 college freshmen: 1.) 61% of men and 45% of women aspired to earn post-graduate degrees. 2.) 69% of men and 28% of women expected to earn more than $10,000 ten years after graduation from college.

Report cover from A Description of American College Freshmen

1977: Developed the ACT Interest Inventory to help individuals identify majors and careers aligned with their interests.

1980: Released the first edition of What Works in Student Retention?, which identified the most important factors in student retention, such as inadequate academic advising (negative) and caring attitude of staff and faculty (positive).

1992: Conducted every three to five years by ACT, the National Curriculum Survey collects data about what entering college students should know and be able to do to be ready for college-level coursework in English, math, reading, and science.

1999: Published the report, Relationships between the Noncognitive Characteristics, High School Course Work and Grades, and Test Scores of ACT-Tested Students, highlighting the multidimensional nature of student success.

2004: Authored the report, Do psychosocial and study skill factors predict college outcomes? A meta-analysis, underscoring the value of social and emotional learning (SEL) skills for predicting college success (retention, GPA), even after taking into account academic skills (ACT scores, HSGPA).

2005: Released the seminal piece, Crisis at the Core, shining a national spotlight on the large number of students graduating high school unprepared for postsecondary pursuits, as measured by our newly developed ACT College and Career Readiness Benchmarks: A mere 22% of ACT-tested students met the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks in English, math, and science.

Report cover from Crisis at the Core

2006: Explored the similarities and differences between college readiness and career readiness in the report, Ready for college and ready for work: Same or different?

2008: Put a national spotlight on the issue of students graduating high school lacking foundational skills again in the report, The Forgotten Middle; this time emphasizing the need to intervene as early as possible to get students back on track for college and career readiness while there is still time to remedy academic weaknesses.

2009: Began supplementing our national data release with The Condition of College and Career Readiness reporting. With a decade of reporting under our belt, we provide stakeholders with critical data to track progress in improving college readiness over time, nationally and by student characteristics (e.g., gender, race/ethnicity) and geographic entities (e.g., states, districts, schools).

Report cover from the 2009 Condition of College and Career Readiness 

2010: Foreshadowed the development of the ACT® Holistic Framework® by conducting foundational research in this area, such as the study, Effects of interest–major congruence, motivation, and academic performance on timely degree attainment.

2012: Started College Choice Reporting, which explored student characteristics, preferences, college search behaviors, and enrollment patterns to assist higher education professionals with recruitment, enrollment, and persistence goals. In addition to the report, interactive charts were made available, allowing stakeholders to “slice and dice” the data in ways that were most relevant and meaningful to their needs.

2013: Demonstrated an authoritative voice on the topic of work readiness as evident by the release of two reports, Condition of work readiness in the U.S. and Work readiness standards and benchmarks.

Report cover for the Condition of Work Readiness in the U.S.

2015: Released the ACT Holistic Framework, which identified and defined four broad domains of knowledge and skills needed for educational and workforce success: core academics, cross-cutting capabilities, behavioral (SEL) skills, and navigation skills. Here’s how we’re using it today.

2016: Developed the ACT STEM Benchmark to signal to students, parents, and educators the higher level of math and science knowledge and skills needed to succeed in STEM majors relative to college readiness, in general.

2017: Began annual reporting of the Higher Education Research Digest, providing relevant, timely, and practical research insights to help higher-education professionals. Additionally, three publicly available databases are updated annually to help inform recruitment, enrollment, and success strategies.

Report cover for the 2019 Higher Education Research Digest

2018: Released the second edition of the ACT Policy Platforms for K-12 education, higher education, workforce development (all first published in 2014), and a new platform devoted to career and technical education.

2019: Developed ACT’s Efficacy Framework to support the evaluation of ACT learning products and resources to help individuals achieve success.

Report cover for ACT's Efficacy Framework

ACT Research has evolved over time to identify trends and uncover solutions to the most pressing educational issues of the day, as well as to support ACT’s evolving vision and strategy. However, the essential function of ACT Research remains the same—ensuring that ACT provides high-quality educational and workforce solutions grounded in research.

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About ACT

ACT is a mission-driven, nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people achieve education and workplace success. Grounded in 60 years of research, ACT is a trusted leader in college and career readiness solutions. Each year, ACT serves millions of students, job seekers, schools, government agencies and employers in the US and around the world with learning resources, assessments, research and credentials designed to help them succeed from elementary school through career.