The nonprofit ACT, which administers the test of the same name, reported on Wednesday that scores had declined for the sixth consecutive year, with a record proportion of test takers reaching none of the organization’s benchmarks for college readiness.
That means that their performance in English, reading, math and science suggested that they would not be able to earn Bs or Cs in entry-level college coursework.
For the 1.4 million ACT test-takers in the high school class of 2023, the average composite score on the exam was 19.5 out of 36, the lowest score since 1991, according to the nonprofit. Forty-three percent of students did not meet any of the subject-matter benchmarks, up from 36 percent in 2019.
These test takers were high school freshmen when the coronavirus pandemic interrupted their educations, sending many of them into months of online learning. The achievement declines on the ACT are broadly in line with pandemic-era trends from other national exams.
And yet, it is difficult to interpret the scores because of sweeping changes in college admissions, and state high school requirements that may bring down scores.
Just 43 percent of college applicants submitted SAT or ACT scores last year, according to a report from Common App, down from 74 percent before the pandemic. That change has been driven by colleges embracing test-optional admissions policies, in part because of concerns that the exams are unfair to low-income students.
At the same time, ACT grew its business with state education systems, according to data from the nonprofit, meaning that, in the high school class of 2023, about 748,000 students took the test during the school day, for free, up from 590,000 students in the class of 2021.
Sixteen states required or highly encouraged the exam this year, including Alabama, Arizona, Mississippi and Nevada. Those policies can potentially lower average scores, because students take the test regardless of whether they plan to attend college.
Rose Babington, a senior director at ACT, acknowledged the changing testing cohort, but argued that the persistent, year-over-year declines remained notable in the wake of the pandemic.
“These students had that disrupted experience,” she said, “and likely are in need of some extra support” in colleges or the workplace.