Average ACT composite scores declined this year to from 20.7 to 20.6 -- the lowest level in 10 years. As recently as 2017, the score on the composite averaged 21.
Score averages for the year were released Wednesday.
The declines were particularly notable for minority groups. Among students from traditionally underserved racial/ethnic groups (i.e., not white or Asian), the average decreased from 18.0 to 17.7 between 2016 and 2020.
In fact every group besides Asians saw declines. Asians saw their average score increase to 24.9 this year, from 24.6. White students' scores fell from 22.1 to 22.0.
Average Composite ACT Scores, 2018-2020
This was the year of the coronavirus, which led to many tests being canceled in the spring, summer and fall. Still, 1.67 million students in the 2020 graduating high school class took the ACT, approximately 49 percent of graduates nationally.
ACT administrators stress that the best preparation for the test is to take rigorous courses in high school, outlined in ACT's College Readiness Benchmarks, but few students are meeting those benchmarks. Only 26 percent of ACT-tested students met all four ACT College Readiness Benchmarks (English, reading, math and science), and consistent with last year, 37 percent met at least three out of the four benchmarks.
Half of underserved students (low-income, minority and/or first-generation college students) met none of the four benchmarks.
“By our measures, more than half of underserved students aren’t college ready,” Janet Godwin, CEO of the ACT, said in a statement. “That’s unacceptable, and we must do better. COVID-19 will only exacerbate these gaps and more students will miss out on opportunities to find success. I am hopeful though, that even with the disruption of 2020, ACT data will continue to serve as a consistent evaluation tool crucial to assessing learning gaps, identifying systemic barriers in education and most importantly highlighting opportunities for growth. Together with educators we will work tirelessly to improve student outcomes.”
For Asian students, those who did not take the core curriculum had an average score of 23.5, which was higher than the scores of all other groups with the core curriculum.
New SAT scores are also available from the College Board, and they show a decline to 1051 from 1059.
Also similar are the gaps by racial and ethnic group.
SAT Scores by Race/Ethnicity, 2020
|Reading and Writing||Mathematics|
The College Board also has benchmarks for student performance. For Asian students, 83 percent met the benchmark for reading and writing, and 80 percent met the benchmark for mathematics. For Black students, 44 percent met the benchmark for reading and writing and 21 percent met the benchmark for mathematics.
Bob Schaeffer, interim executive director of FairTest: The National Center for Fair & Open Testing, and a longtime critic of standardized testing in admissions, said the ACT and SAT trends were similar.
"Across the board, SAT scores for the Class of 2020 declined with most gaps between demographic groups increasing over the previous year, reflecting the growing impact of racial and socio-economic privilege on test results," he said. "At first scan, ACT score patterns appear to be similar."
Schaeffer added, "These trends mean that colleges and universities that return to requiring ACT/SAT results after the pandemic will be consciously choosing to rely on tools that they know will reinforce discrimination against most students from historically disenfranchised groups that continue to be denied equal educational opportunity."