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National ACT composite score lowest in a decade, but Utah scores trend upward amid pandemic

An ACT Assessment test is pictured in Springfield, Ill., on April 1, 2014.
An ACT Assessment test is pictured in Springfield, Ill., on April 1, 2014. Utah students’ average composite scores on the ACT college entrance exam climbed between 2020 and 2021, while national score averages dropped.
Seth Perlman, Associated Press

Utah students’ average composite scores on the ACT college entrance exam climbed between 2020 and 2021, rising from 20.2 to 20.6, but numbers of students who took the test fell by 11% from the previous year.

Nationally, 22% fewer students took the ACT test and average composite scores dropped from 20.6 to 20.3, according to data released Wednesday by ACT. This was the lowest average score in more than a decade, according to new data from the nonprofit organization that administers the ACT college readiness exam.

ACT CEO Janet Godwin noted the latest data reflect troubling trends that began before the COVID-19 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,” Godwin said in a statement.

Among the 2021 graduating class nationwide, 25% of students met all four ACT benchmarks of college readiness — English composition, college algebra, social sciences and biology. However, 38% of students met none of these benchmarks, which are the minimum ACT scores required for students to have a high probability of success in credit-bearing first-year college 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.”

While the rise in Utah’s scores bucked the national experience, the results revealed that a disproportionate number of nonwhite students — with the exception of Asian students — were more likely to be part of the 11% in Utah who did not take the test.

The number of Utah students who took the ACT multiple times in 2020 dropped by 36%. Students who take the test multiple times are more likely to improve their scores, according to ACT.

Among Utah students, average scores rose in English, math, reading and science, while subject matter scores fell nationally, according to the results. Utah scores for all racial and ethnic groups rose, except for students who identify as Pacific Islanders, whose composite scores dropped from 17.0 in 2020 to 16.7 in 2021.

The 2021 results reflect difficulties posed by school closures resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and challenges some students experienced when they were unable to arrange to take the test during national testing dates established by ACT.

All Utah public schools take the ACT, but only students who took the 11th grade ACT test in the first testing window of 2020 were able to take the test at school due to the statewide soft closure of school buildings.

“Utah students who were set to take the 11th grade ACT test during either of the other two in-school testing windows were given vouchers and had to arrange to take the test on one of the ACT national testing dates available through 2020,” according to a Utah State Board of Education press release.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson, in a statement, noted that the past two school years have been challenging for everyone.

“The great news of our ACT results is a reflection on the students, teachers, and parents who made this happen through their commitment to education. This year we need to continue focusing on ensuring that all students who are age eligible take the ACT which will help them expand their choices and opportunities for the future,” Dickson said.

Another consideration may be the growing number of colleges and universities that have adopted test-optional admissions policies, with some institutions moving away from test results in their application processes as early as 2004.

In May 2020, the University of California board of regents voted unanimously to phase out use of the SAT and ACT over five years and to replace them with a new test to be developed by University of California faculty members.

Several Utah public universities observed test-optional admissions for fall 2021 due to the pandemic, but some institutions termed the change as temporary.

For students who attend Utah public schools, the ACT remains part of their high school experience. High school juniors take the test as part of the Utah State Board of Education’s accountability system.