College & Workforce Readiness What the Research Says

New Graduates’ ACT Scores Hit a 30-Year Low

By Sarah D. Sparks — October 12, 2022 4 min read
Arrows, with focus on downward turn.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Only about 1 in 5 U.S. high school students students graduated prepared to take college classes in English, reading, math, and science in 2022, according to new data from the college testing firm ACT.

Average performance on the composite ACT fell for the fifth year in a row, to 19.8 out of 36 points in the class of 2022—the lowest performance since 1991.

Across all racial and ethnic groups, only Asian students improved in average scores, from 24.5 points in 2018 to 24.7 in 2022. Black students’ composite scores fell from 16.8 to 16.1 points; Hispanic students from 18.8 to 17.7 points; and white students from 22.2 to 21.3 points during that time.

“The magnitude of the declines this year is particularly alarming, as we see rapidly growing numbers of seniors leaving high school without meeting the college-readiness benchmark in any of the subjects we measure,” said ACT CEO Janet Godwin in a statement. “These declines are not simply a byproduct of the pandemic. They are further evidence of longtime systemic failures that were exacerbated by the pandemic.”

As bad as the scores are, they may undersell new graduates’ academic instability. Of the nearly 1.35 million graduates who took the ACT in 2022, 35 percent did so multiple times, up from 32 percent of the class of 2021 who retested. A prior study of test participation found students who retake the ACT raise their score nearly 3 points on average compared to students who do not retest—and low-income students are much less likely to take the test several times than higher-income students. It costs $88 per student to take the full ACT (or $63 without a related writing assessment), though some districts and states pay for students to take the test in school. While some students can apply for a need-based fee waiver, prior studies have found the majority of students with family incomes under $60,000 a year don’t use them.

ACT’s score trends also align with those of the College Board’s SAT, which also showed declines for the class of 2022 compared to 2021. (The SAT cautioned against comparing current to pre-pandemic scores, because of differences in participation.) The College Board found only 43 percent of SAT test-takers met its college-readiness benchmarks for reading, writing, and math.

Severe college-readiness gaps for disadvantaged students

ACT sets benchmark scores in core subject areas based on the performance of college students who previously took the ACT. For example, a student who meets the benchmark score of 18 out of 36 in English composition or 22 out of 36 in math would have about a 75 percent chance of earning at least a C—and a 50-50 chance of earning a B or higher—in introductory college courses in English composition or algebra, respectively.

ACT found 53 percent of all graduates met college-readiness benchmarks in English, but only 41 percent did so in reading. Well under a third of students met benchmarks in general science and math. Moreover, only 16 percent of all students—including only 8 percent of Latino students and less than 5 percent of Black and Native American students—were prepared to earn at least a C in more-intensive calculus, physics, and other college courses for majors in STEM fields.

Most students take college placement tests in the winter or spring of their junior year, and the recent declines are likely to increase pressure on schools to catch up struggling high school students. It will be a steep climb.

“I think it also speaks to the need for earlier opportunities for assessment, for instructional improvement, and for conversation,” said Rose Babington, ACT’s senior director for state partnerships. “If a student isn’t where they want to be as they’re starting to head into senior year and applying to colleges and universities, it’s better for students to understand their support needs, what they can challenge themselves with during their senior year to close that gap as much as they possibly can.”

Grade inflation and limited access to rigorous courses also may be playing a role in weakening students’ preparation for college.

ACT found that students who took a “core” college-prep course load in high school performed better on the college placement test than students who took less rigorous courses—but, that course advantage is weaker than it was five years ago.

“Our research has told us for many years that access to a rigorous high school curriculum is the most important thing for student success—and that limited access, we think is very much tied to the score declines that we’ve seen this year and for the past five to 10 years before that,” said Babington. “And grade inflation, we have seen that worsening over the last decade and in particular over the last three years. Pairing ACT with high school academic data, we think gives a really telling picture for schools and districts and states to look at student readiness and to be able to really identify some gaps.”

Separate studies released this spring by ACT and the National Center for Education Statistics also found rampant and rising grade inflation in high school classes both before and during the pandemic. Grade inflation increased faster for girls than boys, and faster for Black students than those of other races, ACT reported.


School Climate & Safety K-12 Essentials Forum Strengthen Students’ Connections to School
Join this free event to learn how schools are creating the space for students to form strong bonds with each other and trusted adults.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Creating Confident Readers: Why Differentiated Instruction is Equitable Instruction
Join us as we break down how differentiated instruction can advance your school’s literacy and equity goals.
Content provided by Lexia Learning
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
IT Infrastructure & Management Webinar
Future-Proofing Your School's Tech Ecosystem: Strategies for Asset Tracking, Sustainability, and Budget Optimization
Gain actionable insights into effective asset management, budget optimization, and sustainable IT practices.
Content provided by Follett Learning

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

College & Workforce Readiness What the Research Says New Data Paint Bleak Picture of Students' Post High School Outcomes
Students are taking much longer to complete credentials after high school than programs plan.
2 min read
Student hanging on a tearing graduate cap tassel
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
College & Workforce Readiness This East Coast District Brought a Hollywood-Quality Experience to Its Students
A unique collaboration between a Virginia school district and two television actors allows students to gain real-life filmmaking experience.
6 min read
Bethel High School films a production of Fear the Fog at Fort Monroe on June 21, 2023.
Students from Bethel High School in Hampton, Va., film "Fear the Fog"<i> </i>at Virginia's Fort Monroe on June 21, 2023. Students wrote, directed, produced, and starred in the film through a partnership between their district, Hampton City Schools, and two television actors that's designed to give them applied, entertainment industry experience.
Courtesy of Hampton City Schools
College & Workforce Readiness A FAFSA Calculation Error Could Delay College Aid Applications—Again
It's the latest blunder to upend the "Better FAFSA," as it was branded by the Education Department.
2 min read
Jesus Noyola, a sophomore attending Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, poses for a portrait in the Folsom Library on Feb. 13, 2024, in Troy, N.Y. A later-than-expected rollout of a revised Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FASFA, that schools use to compute financial aid, is resulting in students and their parents putting off college decisions. Noyola said he hasn’t been able to submit his FAFSA because of an error in the parent portion of the application. “It’s disappointing and so stressful since all these issues are taking forever to be resolved,” said Noyola, who receives grants and work-study to fund his education.
Jesus Noyola, a sophomore at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, stands in the university's library on Feb. 13, 2024, in Troy, N.Y. He's one of thousands of existing and incoming college students affected by a problem-plagued rollout of the revised Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FASFA, that schools use to compute financial aid. A series of delays and errors is resulting in students and their parents putting off college decisions.
Hans Pennink/AP
College & Workforce Readiness How Well Are Schools Preparing Students? Advanced Academics and World Languages, in 4 Charts
New federal data show big gaps in students' access to the challenging coursework and foreign languages they need for college.
2 min read
Conceptual illustration of people and voice bubbles.