The average ACT score has reached a thirty-year low, and the terrible numbers from the past year’s test-takers are even worse than you might think. 

It would be bad enough if 42% of all high school seniors failed to meet the college readiness benchmark in any subject—English, reading, science, or math. However, the reality is far worse: ACT test-takers are disproportionately people who believe they can demonstrate college readiness on the test. The pool is not a perfect sample of American high schoolers; it overweights those who want to go to college and underweights those who do not. 

Not every student takes the ACT, or even its competitor, the SAT. In fact, only 36% of high school seniors took the ACT in 2022. Both tests are for students who want to go to college to prove that they are ready for college-level coursework. Some school districts hold testing sessions during the school day, leading to increased participation rates. Outside of those districts, though, those who do not want to go to college, or do not believe they can, are self-selecting out of this data pool. 

Out of a maximum score of 36, the national composite average score is now an embarrassing 19.8, dipping below 20 for the first time since 1991. Statistically, students from higher-income families are more likely to take the test multiple times, and they are likely to perform better on the test when they retake it. This likely overweights these top performers in the data, skewing the score higher than it would be if every test taker had only one shot at the test. 

These kids have been lied to by an education system that treats mediocrity as excellence. Only 36% of our country’s public high school seniors are proficient readers. And yet, the nationwide public high school graduation rate is 86%. That doesn’t add up! Schools are graduating people who have been robbed of the educational basics. 

Colleges, meanwhile, have a financial incentive to continue admitting students who are not ready for college-level work and to keep them enrolled by lowering the academic bar to a level they can reach. If colleges were to only admit the students who are college-ready, many of them would have to close up shop forever. There simply are not enough prepared students to go around. It is no surprise that the National Bureau of Economic Research found rampant grade inflation last year, leading to more people completing college not because they were academically stronger than previous cohorts, but because their grades were inflated. 

Of course, colleges are going “test-optional” in droves: Otherwise, they would have to own up to the fact that they are admitting students who should not make the cut. Colleges are lying to themselves and the public by pretending that when a student performs poorly on the test, the problem is the test and not the student’s education. 

Falling scores are not entirely a COVID problem: This year’s ACT data is only the latest in a five-year slide. Reopening schools was deeply necessary but not enough to fix a systemic problem. These test scores are the canary in the coal mine, signaling a need for deep and lasting change.