Are ACT scores Declining?

The SAT has been dominating the news over the last year due to a series of controversies engulfing the College Board and a slew of announcements by colleges and universities covering topics ranging from the decision to go test optional to reports that more and more colleges have decided not to consider the SAT essay score in admissions.  The primary competitor to the SAT in the college admissions test field, the ACT, has managed to avoid experiencing the majority of the bad press that currently surrounds the SAT despite the ACT organization’s own mishaps over the last few years, including flip-flopping on the scoring rubric of the ACT essay and the continued failed attempts to migrate the ACT from a paper-based test to a computer-based test.  Recently, though, two unrelated news items have garnered enough public awareness that parents, students, and educators are beginning to ask a similar question: are ACT scores getting lower?

Earlier this year, the ACT organization partnered with the College Board and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) to produce and release a new concordance table. The concordance table is a chart which shows what each possible ACT score is equivalent to on the SAT.  This way students can compare how they performed on the ACT to how they might have scored on the SAT, or more importantly, compare their results from an actual SAT versus an actual ACT.  For many years, the ACT organization developed and published the concordance table on their own by comparing the median scores on the SAT, 500 for each section or 1000 for a total SAT score, with the median result that students historically achieved on the ACT.  For decades, the median score on the ACT was a 21, on a scale of 1-36, with 36 representing the highest possible score.  Of course, the ACT scale is quite different from the more well-known SAT scale, 200-800 per section or 400-1600 on the test as a whole.

The ACT organization developed the new concordance due to the big changes in the SAT.  The College Board released a redesigned and rewritten SAT in 2016 to much acclaim and consternation.  While the ACT organization also released an updated version of the ACT that year, the changes were much smaller and more subtle.  The ACT changed one of the Reading section passages to a Paired Passage.  The ACT reduced the number of passages on the Science section from seven to six, meaning each remaining passage has one or two additional questions since the Science section still covers 40 questions in 35 minutes.  The ACT essay changed format slightly to include three different pre-selected perspectives to add an analytical element to the opinion-based essay. The SAT, on the other hand, was completely remade, which resulted in concerns that the existing concordance was no longer valid.

The new concordance still shows the comparisons between equivalent ACT and SAT scores.  The only difference is that the ACT’s equivalent to the SAT’s median score is no longer 21.  The SAT’s median Math score of 500 is now equivalent to a score of 18 on the ACT Math section.  The SAT’s median Evidence-Based Reading & Writing (English) score of 500 is now equivalent to a score of either 18 or 19 on the ACT English and Reading sections. The SAT’s median total score of 1000 is now equivalent to a Composite score of 19 on the ACT.  One could argue that this means that the ACT is a more challenging test, since it appears that the SAT’s scores have slid down the ACT’s scale.  There is, however, evidence to the contrary regarding this theory.

Articles in various education journals were published over the last several weeks hinting that the average of ACT scores may be going down.  Each article utilized different data points to suggest that ACT scores earned by students over the last year’s testing have dropped noticeably from a median of 21 to a median of 18 or 19.  There are several problems with the conclusions drawn by the authors of these different articles, though.

First, each article depends on a different, small, set of data.  Many states in the middle of the United States utilize the ACT as an annual testing supplement to the PARCC or other yearly test that students must take to graduate high school.  Those states publish their data from these annual testings, but students who take the ACT additional times as part of their individual  college application processes may not be included in these data sets.  Many more students take the ACT who do not live in these particular states, so their results are also not included.  Furthermore, the average scores reported by the ACT does not support this conclusion, either.

Most damning of all to the reports that average ACT scores are getting lower is that very similar articles were published in 2016 by the very same journals.  And despite the claims in those articles, the data published by the ACT, per federal law, shows that the ACT’s average scores have remained fairly consistent.

Despite concerns based on the release of the new ACT concordance or on reports in the media, there is no concrete evidence that average ACT scores are getting lower.  In fact, evidence has shown that ACT and SAT scores have been rising over the last 30 years, which is one of the reasons why both the College Board and the ACT organization have worked so hard to make their tests more challenging.