ACT test scores plummet to 30-year low fueled by COVID-19 pandemic slide

IOWA CITY, Iowa — College preparedness appears to have tanked during the COVID-19 pandemic, with scores for a leading college entrance exam plunging to a 30-year low and fewer graduating high school students achieving subject-area benchmarks set by the testing service.

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According to a report released Wednesday by the Iowa City, Iowa-based ACT, the class of 2022′s average ACT composite score was 19.8 out of 36, marking the first time since 1991 that that figure dipped below 20.

In addition, 42% of ACT-tested class of 2022 graduates failed to meet subject benchmarks in English, reading, science and math, all of which are considered indicators of how well students are expected to perform in corresponding college courses, the report concluded.

By contrast, 38% of test takers in 2021 met none of the benchmarks, The Associated Press reported.

Janet Godwin, ACT’s chief executive officer, called the latest data, which confirmed the fifth consecutive year of declines in average student scores, a “worrisome trend that began long before the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, and has persisted.”

“The magnitude of the declines this year is particularly alarming, as we see rapidly growing numbers of seniors leaving high school without meeting the college-readiness benchmark in any of the subjects we measure,” Godwin stated.

“These declines are not simply a byproduct of the pandemic. They are further evidence of longtime systemic failures that were exacerbated by the pandemic. A return to the pre-pandemic status quo would be insufficient and a disservice to students and educators. These systemic failures require sustained collective action and support for the academic recovery of high school students as an urgent national priority and imperative,” she added.

In addition, the number of students taking the ACT has declined 30% since 2018, as graduates increasingly forgo college and some universities no longer require admissions tests. But participation plunged 37% among Black students, with 154,000 taking the test this year.

According to the AP, standardized tests such as the ACT have faced growing concerns that they are unfair to minority and low-income students because students with access to expensive test preparation services or advanced courses often perform better.

Rose Babington, senior director for state partnerships for the ACT, defended the entrance exam’s relevance, however.

“Now more than ever, the last few years have shown us the importance of having high-quality data to help inform how we support students,” Babington told the AP.

“Every time we see ACT test scores, we are talking about skills and standards, and the prediction of students to be successful and to know the really important information to succeed and persist through their first year of college courses,” she added.

Meanwhile, standardized test scores are now optional for first-year student admission at many colleges and universities, while some, such as the University of California system, opt for a test-blind policy, meaning scores are not considered even if submitted.

According to ACT’s report, only 22% of class of 2022 graduates met all four ACT benchmarks.

- The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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