ACT Scores Fell During Pandemic

And 375,000 fewer students took the exam.

October 18, 2021

ACT composite scores fell 0.3 points for the high school Class of 2021 to an average composite score of 20.3 points, according to a report released by ACT Wednesday. The scores have dropped every year of the last five -- and this year’s drop was the largest.

A total of 1,295,349 students took the ACT during the year, a decline of 375,000 students.

The College Board, which released data on the SAT for 2021 in September, lost many more students: 700,000. But the College Board saw an increase in average scores, from 1051 to 1060.

Analyzing the drop (or growth) in ACT and SAT scores this year is difficult. The pandemic resulted in many students being unable to take the ACT or SAT even once, let alone the several times that are common for students. As a result of so many students being unable to take the exams, the vast majority of four-year colleges went test optional or test blind last year (and most of them will also be test optional this year).

Some of the other statistics released by ACT:

  • Average English, mathematics, reading and composite scores all declined 0.3 points. Science scores declined by 0.2 points.
  • The percentage of students meeting all four benchmarks dropped one percentage point, from 26 percent of students to 25 percent of students, whereas the percentage of students meeting no benchmarks increased by one percentage point, from 37 percent to 38 percent. (The ACT College Readiness Benchmarks are the minimum ACT scores required for students to have a high probability of success in credit-bearing first-year college courses.)
  • In April, ACT introduced “superscoring,” which averages a student’s best scores from each subject across multiple test attempts to create a superscore. The average superscore for retested students was 24.2. ACT research shows that ACT superscores are better at predicting success in college than other scoring methods (including recent ACT score, average ACT composite score and highest ACT composite score).

The racial/ethnic makeup of ACT test takers was similar to last year’s (pre-pandemic) totals. There was a slight increase in the percentage of white students (two percentage points) and a slight decrease in Hispanic students (three percentage points). While the scores of Asian students stayed the same this year, in the lead, gaps grew between their scores and those of Black, Hispanic and white students.

ACT Composite Scores by Race/Ethnicity, 2021

(Numbers don’t add to 100 percent because this chart doesn't include two or more races and those who didn’t answer the question on race.)

Group % of Test Takers Average One-Year Change
Black 12% 16.3 -0.4
American Indian 1% 16.9 +0.2
White 54% 21.7 -0.3
Hispanic/Latino 14% 18.3 -0.2
Asian 4% 24.9 No change
All 100% 20.3 -0.3

“The COVID-19 pandemic has been an unprecedented challenge for high school students and educators in a number of ways,” said ACT CEO Janet Godwin. “The latest data are a useful reminder of troubling trends that began long before the pandemic. This is the fourth consecutive year of declining achievement of high school seniors, and too many of our seniors are simply not prepared for college-level work. As a country, we ignore these related trends at our own peril.”

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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