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Decline in College Readiness Continues Among US High School Grads, New ACT Report Finds

Some students buck the trend by taking rigorous courses in high school

IOWA CITY, Iowa—ACT score data show mixed results in terms of college readiness among ACT-tested 2019 U.S. high school graduates. This is according to nonprofit ACT’s annual report, The Condition of College and Career Readiness 2019, which was released today.

A slight decline in college readiness is continuing in general, particularly longer-term downward trends in math and English which were identified last year. In fact, the percentages of graduates meeting the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks in math and English are the lowest they’ve been in 15 years.

However, readiness among students who took the recommended core curriculum in high school (four years of English and three years each of math, science and social studies) has stayed steady in math and English over the past five years, even as the national averages went down.

“Our findings once again indicate that taking core courses in high school dramatically increases a student’s likelihood for success after graduation,” said ACT CEO Marten Roorda. “That’s why we need to ensure that all students of all backgrounds have access to rigorous courses and that we are supporting them not only academically, but socially and emotionally as well.”
In addition, Asian American students have actually improved their readiness over the past five years. This year, 62 percent met at least three of the four ACT College Readiness Benchmarks, unchanged from the past two years but up from 59 percent in 2015.

“While the data suggest that a growing number of U.S. high school graduates are inadequately prepared for success in college courses, it’s encouraging to see groups of students who are bucking that trend,” said Roorda.
Overall, 37 percent of ACT-tested graduates in the class of 2019 met at least three of the four ACT College Readiness Benchmarks (English, reading, math and science), showing strong college readiness. This is down slightly from 38 percent last year and 39 percent in 2017.

However, nearly as many—36 percent—did not meet any of the four benchmarks, a number that has increased over the past several years.

In contrast to math and English, readiness levels in both reading and science have fluctuated slightly in recent years, with overall trends relatively stable.

Academic readiness for first-year college coursework remains highest in English (59 percent), followed by reading (45 percent), math (39 percent) and science (36 percent).

Approximately 40 percent of ACT-tested 2019 graduates took the test as part of a state- or district-funded administration, where all students take the ACT on a school day. This is a trend that has been increasing since 2015, when only 27 percent of ACT-tested graduates took the test as part of a statewide or districtwide administration.

Other Findings

  • The pool of students who take the ACT test continues to be diverse. Slightly more than half (52 percent) of 2019 graduates identified themselves as white, 16 percent as Hispanic/Latino, 12 percent as African American students, and 11 percent as another racial/ethnic group. The remaining 9 percent gave no response.
  • College readiness levels remain alarmingly low for students from underserved populations (low-income, minority and/or first-generation college students); the large majority meet only one or none of the four ACT College Readiness Benchmarks.
  • ACT awards fee waivers to hundreds of thousands of low-income high school students across the nation each year so they can take the ACT and access test prep programs for free, but more than a quarter of those fee waivers go unused.
  • African American and, to a lesser degree, Hispanic students continue to lag behind their white and Asian American counterparts in terms of college readiness.
  • 20 percent of graduates met or surpassed the ACT STEM Benchmark, which represents readiness for first-year courses typically required for a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) major.
  • 73 percent of graduates aspire to some form of postsecondary education, with 30 percent hoping to earn a graduate or professional degree and 6 percent aiming for an associate’s or vocational-technical degree.
  • 41 percent of graduates likely have the foundational work readiness skills needed for more than nine out of 10 jobs recently profiled in ACT’s JobPro database. Those students earned an ACT composite score of 22 or higher, which corresponds with the Gold and Platinum levels of the ACT® WorkKeys® National Career Readiness Certificate® (NCRC®).


ACT’s report provides four recommendations to education stakeholders and policymakers to help ensure that all students are college and career ready when they graduate from high school:

1. Academic rigor: Ensure that all students take rigorous academic courses.

2. Personalized learning: Give educators resources to personalize instruction according to students’ individual needs.

3. Continuous improvement: Assess student learning and implement improvement strategies throughout students’ educational careers.

4. Holistic education: Ensure that students’ education is holistic and addresses the needs of the “whole learner,” particularly in essential social and emotional learning skills.

About the Report

The data are based on nearly 1.8 million 2019 graduates around the U.S.—52 percent of the graduating class—who took the ACT® test during high school.

The report includes ACT score results from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, including 13 states that required all students to take the ACT as part of their statewide testing programs and another six states that funded ACT testing on an optional basis. It also includes the results from more than 1,100 individual school districts across the country that administered the ACT to all students.

NOTE: National and state ACT Condition of College & Career Readiness 2019 reports are available on the ACT website at:

For district- or school-specific score results, please contact the local school/district administration or your state department of education. ACT releases only national and state reports.

About the ACT Test

The ACT is a curriculum-based achievement test that measures the skills taught in schools and deemed important for success in first-year college courses. The content of the ACT is informed by results of the ACT National Curriculum Survey®, conducted every three to four years among thousands of elementary, middle and high school teachers and instructors of first-year college courses across the United States. The data obtained in the survey allow ACT to ensure that its assessments measure the skills most important for success after high school.

ACT research shows that students who meet the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks are more likely to persist in college and earn a degree than those who don’t. The benchmarks specify the minimum score students must earn on each of the four ACT subject tests to have about a 75 percent chance of earning a grade of C or higher and a 50 percent chance of earning a B or higher in a typical credit-bearing first-year college course in that subject area.

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About ACT

ACT is a mission-driven, nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people achieve education and workplace success. Grounded in 60 years of research, ACT is a trusted leader in college and career readiness solutions. Each year, ACT serves millions of students, job seekers, schools, government agencies and employers in the US and around the world with learning resources, assessments, research and credentials designed to help them succeed from elementary school through career.