About 375,000 fewer students took the ACT in 2021, average score continues to decline

Dive Brief:

  • About 1.3 million high school students graduating in 2021 took the ACT exam, about 375,000 fewer than the previous year, suggesting the pandemic complicated their ability or desire to sit for the test. 
  • The average composite score fell from 20.6 in 2020 to 20.3 this year, the lowest level in at least a decade. The highest possible score on the ACT is a 36. 
  • Average scores dropped in every racial and ethnic group, except for Asian and American-Indian/Alaska Native students. 

Dive Insight:

This is the fourth consecutive year of declines in the composite average score, a trend that predates the health crisis. Few students are what the testing provider deems college ready, the ACT’s report also shows.

“As a country, we ignore these related trends at our own peril,” CEO Janet Godwin said in a statement. 

In 2017, the average national score on the ACT was 21, though it slid to 20.3 for the high school class of 2021. The average score declined for every racial and ethnic group besides Asian students, whose composite score held unchanged from last year, at 24.9, and American-Indian/Alaska Native students, who saw an increase from 16.7 to 16.9.

The share of students who met three out of four of the ACT’s college readiness benchmarks dropped from 39% in 2017 to 36% in 2021. 

Only a quarter of the 2021 graduating class reached all four benchmarks. 

Bob Schaeffer, executive director of FairTest, an organization advocating for restricted use of standardized assessments, called the ACT’s framing of the score declines an overreaction. He said the testing provider was “spinning the data” to sell its product. 

“There’s learning loss, so we have to keep measuring, measuring and measuring,” Schaeffer said. “Yes, average scores went down on their tests, but what does it mean?”

The data, which was released Wednesday, mirrored results from the SAT in this year’s class. About 1.5 million students in the class of 2021 took the SAT, down 700,000 students from 2.2 million in 2020. 

The College Board, which administers the SAT, primarily blamed the downturn on pandemic-related turmoil, as the coronavirus forced testing sites to shut down or severely limited their capacity. The nonprofit said more than 1 million test registrations were canceled as a result.

For the class of 2021, the mean SAT score was slightly up, 1060 compared to 1051 for the previous year. But American Indian/Alaska Native, Black, Hispanic and Native Hawaiian students all scored lower than that, on average. 

Pandemic disruptions led to vast swaths of colleges no longer requiring an SAT or ACT score for admissions, albeit some temporarily. For fall 2022, more than 1,780 institutions have flipped to test-optional or test-free admissions, the latter meaning they decline to review scores at all, according to FairTest. Its count includes colleges that were test-optional before the pandemic. 

Critics of entrance exams say they do not measure academic performance, but rather game the admissions system so affluent students who can afford extensive test prep can score better. The Common App found far fewer students who used its services submitted admissions scores in the last academic year. But the lowest reporting rates were from students in the bottom quintile of median household income.

The argument that the tests disadvantage certain students was partially the grounds for a 2019 lawsuit against the University of California System, located in one of the largest testing markets in the country. The UC system settled the complaint by agreeing not to consider SAT or ACT scores through fall 2025. Notably, too, the prestigious California Institute of Technology last summer moved to test-free admissions for two years.