ACT Scores Fell Last Year. Relax!

As a shareholder of the Green Bay Packers, I keep an eye on what Butte Community College’s most famous student-athlete has to say. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers famously told fans in “Packer-land” in 2014 to “R-E-L-A-X” after the team got off to an uncharacteristically slow 1-2 start. Fans relaxed after the team went 11-2 the rest of the way in the regular season as Rodgers played like his regular self.

In the education policy niche of the world, few things get people more upset than declining standardized test scores. Last year, I wrote about the fuss about SAT scores declining—and how at least part of that decline is due to more students taking the test instead of the American education system failing young adults. Now it’s ACT’s turn to release their newest scores—and my message again is R-E-L-A-X.

Between 2015 and 2016, average ACT scores declined from 21.0 to 20.8 nationwide, the lowest score in at least five years. But as the now-dominant test in the United States (much to the surprise of many folks who grew up on a coast where the SAT is still common), the percentage of students taking the ACT rose from 52% in 2012 to 59% in 2015 and 64% this year. This sharp increase in ACT takers is in large part due to more states requiring all students to take the ACT as a graduation requirement. In 2016, all graduating high school seniors took the ACT in 18 states, up from 13 states in 2015.

The five states that required all students to take the ACT for the first time in 2016 all saw large decreases in their average scores, as shown below. Wisconsin, Missouri, and Minnesota all had about 75% of their students taking the ACT in 2015 and had drops of about 1.5-1.7 points when all students took the test, with South Carolina having a drop of 1.9 points as the last 38% of students took the test. Nevada had a decline of 3.3 points in 2016, but the percentage of students taking the ACT more than doubled.

State Pct tested (2016) Avg score (2016) Pct tested (2015) Avg score (2015)
Nevada 100 17.7 40 21.0
South Carolina 100 18.5 62 20.4
Wisconsin 100 20.5 73 22.2
Missouri 100 20.2 77 21.7
Minnesota 100 21.1 78 22.7

 

Among the other 45 states that had very small changes in ACT participation rates, the average change in scores at the state level (not weighted for size) was effectively zero. So R-E-L-A-X about test score declines when they are due to more students taking the test (some of whom won’t be going to college, anyway) instead of collegegoing students suddenly performing worse.

Author: Robert

I am an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. All opinions are my own.