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ACT Research: Class of 2021 Students are Committed to College Going and Concerned About College Readiness

Findings Can Help Counselors & Education Advocates Provide College and Career Guidance

All over the country, the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed students to adapt and adjust to an ever-changing learning environment. Uncertainties abound, and students are understandably concerned about their academic futures. But one thing is clear: their college intentions remain intact.

Despite reports that college applications to traditional four-year universities are down, when we surveyed the high school class of 2021 last summer, we found that students were committed to college-going.

The majority of students (79%) said they were “very” or “extremely” certain about their plans to attend college, though nearly half of students (47%) indicated that they intended to change their plans for college in some way. These changes to their original plans included attending a less expensive college, attending a college closer to home, postponing attendance to a later time, attending part-time, or living with family rather than living alone, on campus, or with friends.

While this intent to stay the course is encouraging, we also found that 49% of students were very concerned about how the disruptions to their schoolwork would affect their level of college preparedness. Students told us that they had less time to focus on academics, their current school schedule was “cluttered,” and learning remotely has made it more difficult to gain access to teachers.

This learning environment has also impacted student’s concentration, with 44% of students saying that they have concentrated less on their schoolwork since the pandemic started.

Nearly half of students were “a great deal” concerned about how the disruptions to their schoolwork would affect their level of college preparedness and/or have concentrated less on their schoolwork since the pandemic started.

Chart showing that 49% of students are "a great deal" concerned about COVID-19 learning disruptions affecting their college preparedness, and 44% have concentrated "less" on their schoolwork amid the pandemic.

The implications of students learning during a global pandemic has also affected key milestones important to the college-going process. More than half of our students said that their ability to do well on the ACT/SAT has been hurt by the pandemic. This was especially true for students, who, if they do plan to attend college, will be the first in their family to do so.

These students are nearly twice as likely to have to take care of a family member compared to students who have parents who did attend college. They are also less likely to have a parent at home while learning remotely and more likely to also hold a job. Given the variety of remote instructional models from schools during this period, students have felt the pressures from both home and work.

Highlighting these issues is important since three out of four juniors we surveyed after the June national test date reported that obtaining an ACT score is important to their long-term goals. Students took the ACT at some point last school year because the score is required or recommended for college admissions, merit-based scholarships, and/or high school graduation.

Seventy-five percent of juniors surveyed in June said that the ACT score was extremely or very important to their future goals.

Chart showing importance of ACT scores to future goals. Thirty-eight percent said, "extremely important," 37% said "very important," 21% said "moderately important," and 4% said "not at all important."
Recognizing the unique challenges that students are facing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, ACT has been working to introduce two new test enhancements to support students.

The first is the introduction of an official ACT Superscore on students’ score reports. The new ACT Superscore is calculated as the average of students’ four highest subject scores across all test attempts to show the highest possible scores. Students will have the option to send their Superscore to colleges.

Section retesting is the second test enhancement. It will allow students to be able to take between one and three subject tests (i.e. English, math, reading, science, and/or writing) on a single test date.

Since these enhancements will be available to students in the future, it’s important for ACT to understand how students view them, and how their perceptions might inform their test preparation strategies. Students indicated that the enhancements, in tandem, could provide new opportunities to present their level of college preparedness to their college or colleges of interest.

For example, one strategy is to take the full test first to measure baseline performance, engage in test preparation strategies in the areas that they need to improve, and then retest on select sections. In addition, this approach, students believe, will solve test fatigue they reported experiencing taking the full ACT test. As one student noted:

The section retakes will allow me to study for certain sections that I struggle with and get a better score in order to improve my Superscore.

Students also said that the new test enhancements would reduce test anxiety, because they allow students to focus their test preparation efforts only on the subjects they need to improve. In this way, students do not need to worry about poor performance on sections they’ve already mastered. Most often students reported they could focus on mathematics and science, subjects most often seen as weaker areas in need of improvement. This strategy was viewed by our students as a better way to manage their time, given the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. As one student shared:

I have severe anxiety and it affects my test taking abilities. I believe taking the test multiple times each is my way to compensate for that.

We hope that by providing these test enhancements, students will be better able to cope with new challenges and better illustrate what they know in a time of continual adjustment. Opting in to testing affords students more opportunities to present a robust picture of their academic achievement. Admissions aside, a score may garner more scholarship dollars, aid in placement and retention, and help students identify their strengths and acknowledge areas where more learning is necessary. Without this standardized measure, understanding the true effect of COVID-19 on student learning will be difficult, if not impossible.

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In a time of uncertainty, students need strong advisors. Counselors are working harder than ever to help their students navigate their path forward. As we celebrate National School Counseling Week, we honor counselors like Jamie Cummins who are all in for their students.

Take a deeper dive into the ACT research mentioned in this blog: