ACT average scores

Average ACT Scores Are Down in the Pandemic

The test writers at ACT claim the national average ACT scores have dropped noticeably over the last year in a new blog post on their website. According to the post, not only have the scores dropped on average, the percentage of students showing what ACT calls “college readiness” have dropped significantly as well. Since the ACT organization is in the business of getting students to sign up for the ACT, getting school districts to sign up for educational resources, and getting state departments of education to utilize their testing services, one has to wonder what is their point in publishing this breathless blog post.

The answer can be found in the first paragraph of the article. ACT claims that there were “nearly 1.3 million high school seniors in the 2021 ACT-tested graduating class.” The number of recently graduated seniors who took the ACT is much lower than the average number of test takers ACT has seen over the last few years. For the last decade, around 1.8 million to 2 million seniors graduated each year having taken the ACT at least once. That is the bigger concern to ACT, in our opinion.

The score drop? The average ACT composite score amongst students in the class of 2021 was 20.3. The average ACT composite score for the class of 2020 was 20.6. A drop of 0.3 among a sample group in the millions is a noticeable drop, but not that significant. These students did face intense challenges in their final year plus of high school. That being said, was learning loss due to the pandemic solely responsible for this score drop? Let’s take a look at what has happened since March 2020.


The Early Days of the Pandemic

Once the pandemic erupted in March of 2020, the ACT organization cancelled the April 2020 test date. The ACT organization then promised to make an at-home, online version of the test available as soon as possible. However, they failed in their attempts to make the test available online to students at home. The ACT organization instead refused to cancel the June 2020, July 2020, or later test dates, insisting that social distancing and mask wearing would be sufficient to ensure the health and safety of students.

So, students registered for the June 2020, July 2020, and September 2020 ACT test dates at their local high school testing centers. However, even though the test was still administered nationally, due to local outbreaks and surges of the pandemic, many local testing sites cancelled the test for students. By some accounts, approximately 40-45% of students saw their local test site cancel on them between June 2020 and December 2020.  By that time, college application deadlines loomed.


Effects of the Pandemic on ACT Average Scores

Not only did an enormous number of students miss out on the ACT entirely during 2020, accounting for the drop in the number of seniors who had taken the test by the time they graduated, but the conditions on test day likely also contributed to the drop in average ACT composite scores. The administration of the ACT had to quickly make changes to meet the challenge of the pandemic. It may sound simple that social distancing and masking were required, but none of these students had ever previously taken a large, important standardized test under those conditions.

The factors of the stress of even getting a confirmed test date and the radically different test day conditions likely affected scores far more than a drop in college readiness across the country. Most students, often more than 75%, take the ACT for the first time in late junior year or early senior year. By that time, students have completed their studies in the majority of the topics covered by the ACT: reading comprehension through 11th grade material, basic grammar and writing skills, and math through Algebra 2. The pandemic could not retroactively make high school seniors worse students three, five, or seven years ago.

The Future of the ACT

So what does this mean for students going forward? Nothing really has changed. Since the structure, format, and content of the ACT have not changed, the longstanding, tried and true strategies that we teach at Livius are still the best tools for students to access. With a well-developed set of test-taking skills, a deep understanding of the test, and the firm yet kind guidance of a dedicated expert tutor, students can still visibly improve their results on the ACT.

Has the pandemic had an effect on the current crop of high school students? Probably. Many school districts were not as prepared as they should have been for such an occurrence, but teachers across the country did amazing work adapting to remote learning and hybrid programs. Perhaps we will see a long-term dip in skills and readiness over the next decade due to the pandemic, but it is clear that the ACT test writers are attempting to foment panic on the part of parents, students, teachers, school administrators, and elected officials by already claiming that our current high school and middle school students represent a “lost generation”.