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U.S. High School Graduates, Underserved Students Will Face Significant Challenges in College According to New ACT Achievement Data

Equity and Opportunity Gaps Persist as National Average Composite ACT Score Trends Down for Third Year in a Row

IOWA CITY, Iowa—ACT, the nonprofit organization that administers the ACT college readiness exam, today released achievement data from the 2020 U.S. high school graduating class of ACT test-takers. Of the nearly 1.67 million students in the 2020 graduating class who took the ACT test, approximately 49 percent of graduates nationwide, the national average Composite score was 20.6, one tenth of a point lower than the 2019 national average of 20.7.

This is the lowest average Composite score in the past 10 years. The average Composite score for students from traditionally underserved racial/ethnic groups (i.e., not white or Asian) decreased from 18.0 to 17.7 between 2016 and 2020.

ACT’s empirical indicators of readiness, the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks, provide actionable information to students and educators to improve learning. 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. Just over half of underserved students (low-income, minority, and/or first-generation college students) met zero of the four benchmarks.

“By our measures, more than half of underserved students aren’t college ready,” said ACT CEO Janet Godwin. “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.”
ACT research has consistently shown that students who report taking the recommended core curriculum—four years of English, three years of mathematics (including courses in Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II), three years of science (including courses in Biology, Chemistry, and Physics) and three years of social studies—are more likely to be ready for college or career than those who do not. Access to quality courses as part of a rigorous curriculum may be limited for certain groups—like students from rural areas and low-income students—compared to their more privileged peers.

Overall, the percentage of students self-reporting their curriculum and other information has declined over the past few years. Among students who provided coursework information to ACT, 75 percent completed the core curriculum and achieved an average score of 22.3, while 25 percent took less than the core curriculum and achieved an average score of 19.2. The average Composite score among 2020 graduates who did not provide coursework information is 17.9, which is 0.1 points lower than the 2019 average for this group of students.

“Our states and districts continue to lead the way in providing opportunities for access for all students, particularly underserved students,” said ACT President of Measurement, Charlie Astorino. “As more students take the ACT during the school day, particularly with COVID-19 limiting access to school buildings on national test dates, educators and school officials will look to ACT data for reliable insights to holistically assess and improve learning outcomes for students and school systems.”
In conjunction with the release of ACT achievement data on the class of 2020 graduates, ACT is also releasing a policy brief and corresponding webinar. These activities highlight a diverse group of high schools that have shared their insights regarding a number of interventions to address and remedy barriers to postsecondary success for their students.

While COVID-19 affected students and education systems in many ways in the spring of 2020, the data do not suggest that ACT scores for the 2020 graduating class were affected in a substantive way by the safety measures and responses to COVID-19. It is too early to determine the ways in which COVID-19 may affect the testing rates and average scores of future graduating classes.

Other Findings

  • In the 2019-2020 school year, ACT continued to provide ACT fee waivers for students from low-income families to take the ACT for free. Students used ACT fee waivers to register for almost 400,000 free ACT tests, with more than $20.5 million in registration fees waived.
  • Among 2020 graduates who retested, receiving more exposure to instruction, the average ACT Composite score was 22.8 (22.7 in 2019), while the national average Composite score for single-time testers among 2020 graduates was 19.0 (19.2 in 2019).
  • The annual reporting of ACT achievement data on the high school graduating class looks at a student’s most recent test attempt. The percentage of high school graduates whose last test was taken as a junior has been increasing since 2016, with 58 percent of 2020 graduates taking their last test as a junior.
  • Among ACT-tested 2020 graduates, 24 percent did not complete any of the course grade information section of the ACT registration form, which is used to determine core/non-core curriculum status.
  • 44% of the ACT-tested graduating class had a state or district test as their most recent record, meaning that they had the ability to receive a college-reportable ACT score while testing in their own school buildings on a weekday.
As ACT becomes a learning organization, it’s increasingly important for the nonprofit to not only measure readiness, but also provide research-backed learning solutions and share success stories from educators improving learning in their classrooms.

Join ACT for a webinar on November 12, 2020 from 3:00-4:00 p.m. central featuring promising practices from exemplary high schools that are helping their students find success while serving predominately high populations of minority/underserved students in rural, urban and suburban areas. Learn what these schools are doing to help students outperform expectations compared to their peers.

About the Data

The data released include ACT score results from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, including 14 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. They also include the results from more than 1,100 individual school districts across the country that administered the ACT to all students.

Note: There will be no Condition of College and Career Readiness national report or corresponding state reports in 2020. The data remain largely unchanged year-over-year and can now be accessed in an interactive format. State profile reports are available upon request.

View the data via the public-facing Tableau dashboard.

Additionally, ACT will continue to release focused reports, including a series of briefs on ACT fee waiver usage, throughout the year in order to give these important topics the full attention they deserve.

About ACT

ACT is a mission-driven, nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people achieve education and workplace success. Headquartered in Iowa City, Iowa, ACT is trusted as a national leader in college and career readiness, providing high-quality assessments grounded in over 60 years of research. ACT offers a uniquely integrated set of solutions designed to provide personalized insights that help individuals succeed from elementary school through career.