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Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic, National Average Composite ACT Score is Down

One-quarter of the 2021 graduating class met all four ACT College Readiness benchmarks; significant learning opportunities remain

IOWA CITY, Iowa — For the nearly 1.3 million high school seniors in the 2021 ACT-tested graduating class, the national average Composite score on the ACT was 20.3, the lowest average score in more than a decade, according to data released today by ACT, the nonprofit organization that administers the ACT college readiness exam.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has been an unprecedented challenge for high school students and educators in a number of ways,” said ACT CEO Janet Godwin. “The latest data are a useful reminder of troubling trends that began long before the pandemic. This is the fourth consecutive year of declining achievement of high school seniors, and too many of our seniors are simply not prepared for college-level work. As a country, we ignore these related trends at our own peril.”

Among the 2021 graduating class, 25 percent of students met all four ACT Benchmarks, while 38 percent of students met none of these benchmarks, a one percentage point increase over last year. The ACT College Readiness Benchmarks are the minimum ACT scores required for students to have a high probability of success in credit-bearing first-year college courses. ACT research has shown that students who meet a benchmark on the ACT have approximately a 50 percent chance of earning a B or better and approximately a 75 percent chance of earning a C or better in the corresponding college course or courses.

“We are seeing a number of year-over-year trends that suggest the emergence of a ‘lost generation’ that is less likely to succeed academically and in the workplace,” Godwin said. “These trends have all been worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is not the single cause nor excuse for them.”

ACT research has consistently shown that students who report taking the recommended core curriculum are more likely to be ready for college or career than those who do not. The average ACT composite score among students who said they completed a core curriculum was 22.5, compared to 19.2 for students who said they completed less than a core curriculum. There remain stark opportunity gaps in advanced coursework, particularly for rural students and those from low-income families, which has profound effects for the college and career opportunities following graduation. These students were already more likely to lack access to a rigorous curriculum prior to the pandemic, but the opportunity gaps were likely exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Completing a rigorous, core curriculum is excellent preparation for college and career,” said Dianne Henderson, ACT vice president of research. “Access to quality courses as part of a rigorous curriculum is still limited for certain groups—like students from rural areas and low-income students—compared to their more affluent peers, and this gap in access was likely exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Increasing access to advanced courses and college credit-bearing courses like dual enrollment can help remedy some of the persistent gaps in college- and career-readiness that we have observed for many years.”

Consistent with findings from other assessment programs used across the United States, ACT has found that scores have declined during the pandemic. The decline in spring 2021 ACT test scores is comparable to three months of high school instruction. Assessing interrupted learning through assessment data plays a more critical role than ever to school systems, state leaders, educators, and parents in supporting students who were affected by school-related closures and learning disruptions during the pandemic.

Additional resources and analyses of COVID-related disruptions to student learning can be found in ACT’s research on pandemic-era score declines, which has focused on school-day testing programs, including PreACT, ACT Aspire Interim, and ACT state and district (S&D) testing. The 2021 graduating class was the first to experience a full academic year during the pandemic, and future ACT research will more fully explore how the pandemic disrupted student learning.

Other findings:
  • The racial/ethnic composition of the 2021 graduating class was similar to the previous cohort, with a slight increase in the percentage of White students (two percentage points) and a slight decrease in Hispanic students (three percentage points).
  • Average English, mathematics, reading, and Composite scores all declined 0.3 points. Science scores declined by 0.2 points.
  • The percentage of students meeting all four benchmarks dropped one percentage point, from 26 percent of students to 25 percent of students, whereas the percentage of students meeting no benchmarks increased by one point, from 37 percent to 38 percent.
  • In the 2020-2021 academic school year, more than one million students—a record high—took the ACT as part of state and district school-day testing. The ACT State and District Testing program provides students the opportunity to earn college-reportable ACT scores by taking the test in their own classrooms during regular school hours on a weekday, removing many obstacles. School day testing availability expands access to educational opportunity for all students, but especially for students from low-income families, those who would be the first in their families to go to college, and students in rural areas. For the 2021 graduating class, 70 percent of students tested at least once through state or district testing (up from 61 percent in 2020) and 60 percent had a state or district test as their most recent record (up from 44 percent in 2020).
  • On April 1, 2021, ACT introduced superscoring, which averages a student’s best scores from each subject across multiple test attempts to create a superscore. The average superscore for retested students was 24.2. ACT research shows that ACT superscores are better at predicting success in college than other scoring methods (including recent ACT score, average ACT Composite score, and highest ACT Composite score). A superscore best reflects a student’s abilities, enhances a student’s applications, and strengthens efforts to qualify for merit-based aid.
  • For the class of 2020, the college enrollment rate was 59 percent, down from 65 percent for the previous class. The largest decrease in enrollment came from test-takers in the 33-36 score range, highlighting the effect of COVID-19 on college going behavior even among the most academically prepared students.

About the Data

The data released include ACT score results from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, including 16 states that required all students to take the ACT as part of their statewide testing programs, and another seven states that funded ACT testing on an optional basis.

View the data via the public-facing Tableau dashboard.


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. Visit us at

Contact: ACT Public Relations;