published : 2023-10-12

ACT Test Scores Plummet to Lowest Level in 30 Years, Signaling College Readiness Crisis

Average ACT scores hit a new low of 19.5 out of 36, reflecting a six-year downward trend

An image of high school students studying together for the ACT test, showcasing their determination and eagerness for college admissions. Taken with a Nikon D750.

High school students' scores on the ACT college admissions test have dropped to their lowest in more than three decades, highlighting a concerning lack of preparedness for college-level coursework, as reported by the nonprofit organization administering the test.

For six consecutive years, ACT scores have been on a downward trajectory, but the decline further intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic. The students in the class of 2023, whose scores were announced on Wednesday, entered high school during the initial outbreak of the virus in the U.S.

Janet Godwin, the CEO of the nonprofit ACT, acknowledged the undeniable truth that more needs to be done to ensure graduates are adequately equipped for postsecondary success in both college and their future careers.

According to data from the U.S., standardized test scores reveal a disconcerting reality - 13-year-olds are lacking basic reading and math skills. These scores, reaching their lowest point in years, indicate a widespread issue that must be addressed urgently.

The average composite score for U.S. students on the ACT test stands at 19.5 out of a possible 36. Last year, the average score hovered close at 19.8, showcasing a continuous decline.

A close-up photo of a student's hand holding a pencil, poised to tackle a challenging math problem, symbolizing the importance of math skills for college readiness. Taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV.

In specific subject areas, the average scores in reading, science, and math all fell below the benchmarks set by the ACT, indicating a high probability of difficulty in succeeding in first-year college courses. Although the average score in English just surpassed the benchmark, it still experienced a drop compared to the previous year.

In response to criticism that standardized tests favor the wealthy and put low-income students at a disadvantage, numerous universities, including the prestigious University of California system, have made such admissions tests optional or eliminated them altogether. Some colleges do not even consider ACT or SAT scores, regardless of whether they are submitted.

While the testing landscape changes, Godwin emphasized that even in a test-optional environment, these objective test scores remain vital for assessing college readiness and helping academic advisors offer tailored support to students.

Denise Cabrera, a 17-year-old senior at Waianae High School in Hawaii, questioned the necessity of mandatory standardized tests, suggesting that colleges should consider other qualities and achievements of prospective students rather than solely relying on a one-time test score.

Although Denise is aware that the California Institute of Technology does not take test scores into account during the pandemic, she weighs her options carefully, not wanting to limit her choices elsewhere.

A group of diverse students engaged in a lively discussion with their academic advisor, highlighting the crucial role of personalized support in guiding students towards postsecondary success. Taken with a Sony Alpha a7 III.

Approximately 1.4 million students across the U.S. took the ACT this year, marking an increase from the previous year. However, the numbers have yet to return to pre-pandemic levels. Godwin expressed doubt that these numbers will ever fully recover, partially due to universities now adopting test-optional admission policies.

Among the students who were tested, only 21% achieved the ACT's benchmarks for success in college-level classes across all subjects. Research conducted by the nonprofit reveals that students who meet these benchmarks have a 50% chance of earning a B grade or higher and an almost 75% chance of achieving a C grade or better in related courses.

As the alarming decline in ACT scores continues, it is imperative that educational institutions and policymakers take swift and decisive action to address the college readiness crisis. The future success of our students and the overall prosperity of our society depend on it.