SALT LAKE CITY — More than half of the nation’s underserved students aren’t college ready, according to new results of the ACT college readiness exam.
“That’s unacceptable, and we must do better. COVID-19 will only exacerbate these gaps and more students will miss out on opportunities to find success,” ACT CEO Janet Godwin said in a prepared statement.
The results, released Wednesday, show a decline in the national average composite score for 2020, dropping to 20.6 from 20.7 the year prior. This is the lowest average composite score in the past decade, ACT reported.
Among students from traditionally underserved racial/ethnic groups (not white or Asian), the average composite score has decreased from 18.0 to 17.7 between 2016 and 2020.
The average composite score in Utah fell from 20.3 in 2019 to 20.2 in 2020, which was below the national average, ACT reported.
Numbers of Utah students who took the test in 2020 increased, with 44,446 participating compared to 43,790 in 2019. The data is for the graduating class of 2020, most of whom would have taken the test as juniors in 2019 and students who may have retaken the test in 2020.
Among states in which 100% of students take the ACT test, Utah’s average composite score was highest at 20.2, compared to Wisconsin’s 20.1. Utah students’ average composite score was also higher than that of their peers in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee and Wyoming.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson said she was “pleased to see Utah’s students come out on top in an apples-to-apples comparison.”
However, the declines in test scores in Utah and nationally, “even if only by a bit,” is concerning, she said.
“The Utah State Board of Education will be supporting school and district leaders as they work to improve college-readiness outcomes,” Dickson said in a statement.
ACT results showed that 23% of Utah juniors met all four college readiness benchmarks — English, mathematics, reading and science. Fifty-six percent of Utah students tested met benchmarks in English, 44% in reading, and 34% each in science and mathematics.
With the exception of Asian students in Utah, whose average composite score of 21.4 was above state and national averages, average scores of other ethnic minorities continue to lag behind white students’ scores, according to test results.
Average composite scores among American Indians, Blacks, Hispanics fell slightly, while there were slight gains among Asians, Pacific Islanders and students of two or more races.
Experts say students who take rigorous high school coursework typically score higher on the ACT college readiness exams.
ACT’s research consistently shows that students who report taking four years of English; three years of mathematics, including algebra I, geometry and algebra II; three years of science, including biology, chemistry and physics; and three years of social studies are more likely to be ready for college or career than those who do not, according to its website.
“Access to quality courses as part of a rigorous curriculum may be limited for certain groups — like students from rural areas and low-income students — compared to their more privileged peers,” the website states.
ACT officials said testing data does not suggest that ACT scores for the 2020 graduating class were affected in a substantive way by the safety measures and responses to COVID-19, according to ACT.
However, it is too early to determine how COVID-19 may affect the testing rate and average scores of future graduating classes.
Another factor that may impact testing rates is that growing numbers of colleges and universities — including public institutions in Utah — are moving to test-score optional admission processes.
Students still have the option of submitting their test scores to the universities, thus a student with a weaker GPA but solid test scores would have an opportunity to be considered for admission.
Some institutions will require test scores from students seeking direct admission to select programs.
Some are also doing away with the test-score requirement for scholarships awarded by their respective institutions, opting to rely instead on students’ high school course rigor and their grade-point averages.