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Nationwide ACT Test Scores Drop to 30-Year Low

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A hand holding a pencil against a multiple choice testing sheet.
The average ACT scores in reading, science and math all were below benchmarks that the testing service says students must reach to have a high probability of success in first-year college courses. (Getty Images)

High school students’ scores on the ACT college admissions test have dropped to their lowest in more than three decades, showing a lack of student preparedness for college-level coursework, according to the nonprofit organization that administers the test.

Scores have been falling for six consecutive years, but the trend accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Students in the graduating class of 2023, whose scores were reported Wednesday, were in their first year of high school when the virus reached the U.S.

“The hard truth is that we are not doing enough to ensure that graduates are truly ready for postsecondary success in college and career,” said Janet Godwin, CEO for the nonprofit ACT, which stands for American College Testing.

The average ACT composite score for U.S. students was 19.5 out of 36. Last year, the average score was 19.8.

Among California’s 2023 high school graduates (PDF), the average composite score — of 25.7 — was significantly higher than the national average. But that’s in large part because only an estimated 4% of high school graduates in the state actually took the exam, among the lowest rates in the nation.

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The average scores in reading, science and math were all below benchmarks the ACT says students must reach to have a high probability of success in first-year college courses. The average score in English was just above the benchmark but still declined compared to last year.

Many universities have made standardized admissions tests optional amid criticism that they favor the wealthy and disadvantage students with lower-income. Some, including the University of California system, have stopped considering the ACT or SAT scores even if submitted.

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But Godwin said the scores are still helpful for placing students in the right college courses and preparing academic advisors to better support them.

“In terms of college readiness, even in a test-optional environment, these kinds of objective test scores about academic readiness are incredibly important,” she said.

At Denise Cabrera’s high school in Oahu, Hawaii, all students are required to take the ACT as juniors. She said she would have taken it anyway to improve her chances of getting into college.

“Honestly, I’m unsure why the test was ever required because colleges can look at different qualities of the students who are applying outside of just a one-time test score,” said Cabrera, a 17-year-old senior at Waianae High School.

About 1.4 million students in the U.S. took the ACT this year, an increase from last year. However, the numbers have not returned to pre-pandemic levels. Godwin said she doesn’t believe those numbers will ever fully recover, partly because of test-optional admission policies.

Of students who were tested, only 21% met benchmarks for success in college-level classes in all subjects. Research from Godwin’s group shows students who meet those benchmarks have a 50% chance of earning a B or better and nearly a 75% chance of earning a C or better in corresponding courses.

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