College & Workforce Readiness What the Research Says

ACT: Only 1 in 5 High School Graduates in 2023 Fully Prepared for College

By Sarah D. Sparks — October 11, 2023 2 min read
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Only 1 in 5 high schoolers in the class of 2023 graduated ready to succeed in their core introductory classes in college—even though most believe they are well-prepared.

That’s according to a new analysis of scores from ACT college-admissions tests. Nationwide, high school graduates scored 19.5 out of 36 on the ACT. That’s down 0.3 percentage points from last year—and is a 32-year-low composite score. While the drop has been faster since the pandemic began in 2020, college readiness has been on the decline for more than a decade, ACT finds.

More than 40 percent of new graduates didn’t meet ACT’s college-readiness benchmarks in any subject, and only 21 percent met benchmarks in all four. The rest fell somewhere in between, meeting benchmarks in some subjects but not all.

Scores fell across all four core subjects—reading, English, math, and science—but students proved particularly ill-prepared in the latter two. Only 15 percent of students met STEM benchmarks in 2023, down from 20 percent in 2018-19.

STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering, and math—have also been the most likely to show grade inflation, which has increased significantly in the last several years.

About 36 percent of the class of 2023 chose to retake the ACT at least once in high school, with Black students retesting more often.

Nearly half of graduates retested in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Wyoming, states which have all moved to allow graduating seniors to retake the test for free during the school day. States with more retesting tended to have higher composite scores overall.

“The hard truth is that we are not doing enough to ensure that graduates are truly ready for postsecondary success in college and career,” ACT CEO Janet Godwin said in a statement. “This is not up to teachers and principals alone—it is a shared national priority and imperative.”

Students may face rough first year

The class of 2023 started high school in the first year of the pandemic, and the results suggest that older students are graduating without having regained academic ground lost during COVID disruptions. Yet more than 4 in 5 high school seniors said they feel “very” or “mostly” prepared to keep up with college-level work and earn B’s or higher in college, according to a separate survey ACT released last week.

ACT measures college readiness based on how well students scoring at different levels perform in core credit-bearing courses during their first year of college. A student who meets the STEM benchmark, for example, would have a 75 percent chance of earning at least a C, and a 50 percent chance of earning a B or higher, in their introductory math and science courses in college.

Most merit scholarships require students to maintain at least a 3.0 (or B) grade point average, and students must maintain a 2.0 (or C) even for need-based aid in many states.

While many students do include ACT or SAT scores in their college applications, students don’t tend to make decisions about whether to attend college based on whether they meet readiness benchmarks, according to a separate study in Colorado, which requires all students to take the ACT.

That means many new graduates are likely to face a nasty wake-up call in their first year of college.

“The percentage of seniors who are demonstrating that full level of readiness is trending downward,” said Rose Babington, ACT’s senior director for state and federal programs, “and yet students are telling us and perceiving that they’re ready for postsecondary.”


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