ACT Exam Scores for American Students Plummet to a 30-Year Nadir

by Madison Thomas
ACT scores

The latest results from the ACT college admissions test reveal a disconcerting trend, as high school students’ scores have plummeted to their lowest point in over three decades. This decline underscores a concerning lack of preparedness among students for college-level coursework, as reported by the nonprofit organization responsible for administering the examination.

The decline in scores has been a persistent issue for six consecutive years, but the situation worsened significantly during the tumultuous era of the COVID-19 pandemic. The students from the class of 2023, whose scores were released on Wednesday, began their high school journey just as the pandemic was making its initial inroads into the United States.

Janet Godwin, the Chief Executive Officer of the nonprofit ACT, stated, “The hard truth is that we are not doing enough to ensure that graduates are truly ready for postsecondary success in college and career.”

The average ACT composite score for U.S. students stands at 19.5 out of a possible 36. This marks a decline from the previous year when the average score was 19.8.

Scores in key subjects such as reading, science, and math all fall below the benchmarks set by the ACT to indicate a high likelihood of success in the first year of college courses. While the average score in English barely exceeds the benchmark, it has also experienced a decline compared to the previous year.

It is worth noting that several universities have made standardized admissions tests optional in response to criticisms that these tests tend to favor wealthier students, thereby disadvantaging those from lower-income backgrounds. For instance, the University of California system no longer considers ACT or SAT scores, even if they are submitted.

However, Janet Godwin emphasized the continued significance of these scores in terms of placing students in appropriate college courses and aiding academic advisors in providing tailored support to students. She stated, “In terms of college readiness, even in a test-optional environment, these kinds of objective test scores about academic readiness are incredibly important.”

Denise Cabrera, a 17-year-old senior at Waianae High School in Hawaii, expressed some reservations about the necessity of standardized testing in the college admissions process. She pointed out that colleges have the capacity to evaluate various qualities of applicants beyond a single test score. Nevertheless, she chose to take the ACT to enhance her college prospects, considering institutions like the California Institute of Technology, which temporarily suspended standardized test score requirements during the pandemic. Despite being aware that many colleges no longer consider ACT scores, Denise remains open to exploring a wide range of options.

This year, approximately 1.4 million students across the United States took the ACT, representing an increase from the previous year. Nevertheless, these numbers have not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels. Janet Godwin expressed skepticism about a full recovery, partly attributing this decline to the prevalence of test-optional admission policies.

Of those students who took the test, only 21% met the ACT’s benchmarks for success in college-level courses across all subjects. Research from the nonprofit organization indicates that students meeting these benchmarks have a 50% probability of earning a grade of B or better and a nearly 75% probability of earning a grade of C or better in corresponding college courses.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about ACT scores

What are the key findings from the latest ACT test scores?

The latest ACT test scores reveal a significant decline, hitting a 30-year low. The average composite score for U.S. students is 19.5 out of 36, down from 19.8 the previous year. Scores in reading, science, and math all fall below the ACT’s benchmarks for college success.

Has this decline been a recent trend, or has it been ongoing?

The decline in ACT scores has been ongoing for six consecutive years. However, it was exacerbated by the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which significantly impacted students from the class of 2023.

Are colleges still requiring ACT scores for admissions?

Many universities have shifted to test-optional admissions policies, meaning they no longer require ACT or SAT scores for admission. Some prominent institutions, like the University of California system, have completely stopped considering these scores, even if students submit them.

Why do some students still take the ACT if it’s not required?

Despite test-optional policies, some students, like Denise Cabrera, choose to take the ACT to enhance their college prospects. They believe that standardized test scores, while not mandatory, can still be a valuable addition to their college applications.

What percentage of students met the ACT’s benchmarks for college success?

Only 21% of students who took the ACT met the benchmarks set by the organization for success in college-level courses across all subjects. Meeting these benchmarks is associated with a 50% chance of earning a grade of B or better and a nearly 75% chance of earning a grade of C or better in corresponding college courses.

More about ACT scores

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DeniseFan October 14, 2023 - 10:52 am

Denise’s got a point, colleges can look at more than just one test score. but she still took it, smart move!

CollegeBound2023 October 14, 2023 - 11:04 am

Some colleges don’t even want act scores now, they say it’s not fair. act still kinda useful tho.

StatsNerd October 14, 2023 - 8:54 pm

Only 21% meet act’s benchmarks? that’s low, gotta work on that for better college success!

Reader92 October 14, 2023 - 9:47 pm

act scores goin’ down, bad news fo’ students. 19.5 avg this year, 19.8 last year. not lookin’ good.

EduExplorer October 15, 2023 - 1:28 am

Decline in scores, yeah, but it’s been happening 6 years, covid just made it worse. sad.


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