High school students' ACT scores have dropped to their lowest in more than 30 years, according to ACT. The average composite score on the ACT dropped for the sixth straight year from 19.8 for the class of 2022 to 19.5 for the class of 2023.
This year marks the second in a row that scores on the college entrance exam have hit their lowest in over three decades.
The proportion of “COVID cohort” seniors- first-year high school students when the pandemic hit- met none of the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks reached historic highs in 2023. Just 21% of students met all four benchmarks, while 43% met none of these benchmarks.
The percentage of students meeting all four benchmarks dropped 1.3 percentage points, from 22.1% in 2022 to 20.8% in 2023, whereas the percentage of students meeting no benchmarks increased by nearly two percentage points, from 41.6% in 2022 to 43.3% in 2023.
Students Adversely Affected by Testing Requirements
So, why are ACT scores declining year-over-year? The hard truth is that institutions are not doing enough to ensure graduates are genuinely ready for postsecondary success in college and career, ACT CEO Janet Godwin NPR news.
"In terms of college readiness, these kinds of objective test scores about academic readiness are incredibly important," Godwin said in the announcement. “These systemic problems require sustained action and support at the policy level. This is not up to teachers and principals alone. It is a shared national priority and imperative.”
But most importantly, the achievement gap has yet to close, and low-income communities may be disadvantaged. A 2021 study of college admission tests found that the SAT and ACTs discriminate against low-income, minority, and female students in college admissions at selective colleges.
The study found that White students are three times more likely than Black or African-American students and twice as likely as Hispanic or Latino students to have combined SAT scores of 1400 to 1600.
But, this is not intentional discrimination.
The SAT and ACT admission test scores follow a normal distribution, also known as a Bell Curve. When the location of the Bell Curve shifts due to changes in the average test scores, slight differences in scores at the mean are magnified at the highest and lowest test scores. This scoring method leads to significant differences in the percentage of students with high test scores when test-takers are aggregated by income, race, and gender.
Additionally, the SAT may actually be a “wealth test.” New data confirms a family’s income is highly correlated with children’s scores on the college admissions test, The New York Times reports, and the likelihood of a high SAT score grows with the parents’ earnings.
Economists and researchers note that students from wealthy families are more likely to be better prepared years before they take the test because of reasons ranging from better-funded school districts to tutors and extracurricular activities.
Closing this gap could require more funding for schools in low-income communities and improving opportunities for all students.
Higher Education Can Make Admissions More Holistic
In recent years, many colleges and universities have adopted test-optional policies, allowing students to apply without submitting standardized test scores. Offering test-optional admissions enables applicants to showcase their strengths in other areas, such as extracurricular activities, leadership roles, community service, and personal essays.
Currently, more than 1,900 colleges and universities in the U.S. are extending their test-optional policies through the 2023-24 application cycle, with some making the move to test-optional even longer or permanent. Ivy League Harvard recently decided to extend its policy into 2026 admissions.
To ensure fairness, promote diversity, and foster an inclusive student body, universities look beyond traditional application criteria like standardized test scores to more thoroughly evaluate each applicant’s strengths, weaknesses, and potential for success in a given cohort or program.
The ultimate goal of this holistic review approach is to consider the “whole” applicant, including a student’s experiences, attributes, academic metrics, and the value they would contribute to learning, practice, and teaching.
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