The number of students who took the ACT in 2021 declined by 22% from the previous year. That’s a drop of more than 375,000 students, from nearly 1.7 million test-takers in 2020 to just under 1.3 million in 2021. In addition, 32% of the ACT-tested graduating class took the the standardized exam more than once in 2021, compared to 41% for the 2020 cohort.
The number of ACT test-takers has declined each of the past four years. But this year’s decrease was by far the largest annual drop-off. Compared to 2017, when more than 2 million students took the ACT, the 2021 number represents a 36% cumulative decrease, equal to 735,000 fewer students taking the test.
The students who took the test in 2021 also got worse scores. According to a release from ACT, for the 1.3 million high school seniors in the 2021 ACT-tested graduating class, the national average composite score was 20.3, the lowest average in more than a decade.
The just-released data have been eagerly anticipated among education experts who expected there to be a decline in test-takers because of the disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. An increasing number of colleges and universities are opting to proceed with admissions policies that do not require students to submit standardized test scores.
Experts differed on how those factors might affect average test scores. Some argued that the pandemic’s disruptive effects would result in an exacerbation of the recent trend of declining scores.
Others predicted that average ACT scores could increase because the pandemic might have disproportionately reduced participation by low-income students, leaving an overall pool of test-takers that might be more affluent this year and therefore more likely to score better.
ACT officials were in the first camp, suggesting that the pandemic had presented such unprecedented challenges for students and educators that scores were likely to continue their decline.
ACT CEO Janet Godwin said, “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.”
ACT Composite scores declined just slightly for all racial/ethnic groups except for Native Americans, who make up a very small percentage of test-takers.
The national average composite score for all test-takers was 20.3, a drop of 0.3 points from last year. Among various subgroups the average composite (and year-over-year change) was:
- African American 16.3 (- 0.4)
- American Indian 16.9 (+0.2)
- Asian 24.9 ( 0.0)
- Hispanic/Latino 18.3 (- 0.2)
- Natïve Hawaiian/Pacific Islander 17.2 (- 0.3)
- White 21.7 (- 0.3)
- Two or more races 20.6 (- 0.3)
- Females 20.6 (- 0.3)
- Males 20.3 (- 0.2)
A common way to judge national performance on the ACT is to consider the percentage of students who meet the four College Readiness Benchmarks – in English, reading, math, and science. 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
Among the 2021 graduating class, 25% of students met all four ACT Benchmarks, while 38% met none, a one percentage point increase over last year.
The financial consequences of the drop in test-takers are substantial. Assuming that the basic registration fee of $60, with no additional fees for taking additional components such as the essay, the revenue loss to ACT is estimated to exceed $20 million.
Beyond that, however, is the larger issue – the continuing demise in the use of standardized admission tests. At least 1,785 U.S. colleges and universities will not require ACT or SAT scores from applicants seeking to enroll in fall 2022, according to a list maintained by the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest). More than three-quarters of all U.S. bachelor degree-granting institutions now practice test-optional or test-blind admissions, an all-time high.
“Evaluating applications without regard to test scores has become the new normal in undergraduate admissions,” said FairTest Executive Director Bob Schaeffer. “More than half of all colleges and universities in the nation have already committed to remaining test-optional or test-blind for fall 2023 applicants. We expect the final percentage to be much higher.”