By Aziah Siid

Originally appeared in Word in Black

From annual high-stakes state testing to high school exit exams, standardized testing is a part of student life in the United States. In the case of tests like the SAT and ACT, these exams, typically taken during a student’s junior or senior year of high school, are supposed to tell us how ready a kid is for college — even as a majority of four-year colleges have adopted test-optional or test-free admissions policies.

But a new report by ACT, the nonprofit organization that administers the ACT exam, raises the question of whether or not the nation’s students are as prepared as they should be, and sounds yet another alarm about the achievement of Black students.

According to the report published on Oct. 10, ACT scores for American students from all racial and ethnic backgrounds have declined for the past six consecutive years. 

For the graduating class of 2023 — students who were freshmen when the COVID-19 pandemic began — only 21% of students met all four of the ACT’s college readiness benchmarks, while 43% met none. In addition, 70% fell short of the readiness benchmark for mathematics.

Black Students Score Lowest on the ACT

Across the board, Black students scored lowest on every ACT benchmark — mathematics, reading, science, and English, and a composite score, which is the average of your four scores.

In 2023, the average composite score for all students was 19.5 out of 36, but for Black students, the score was 16 out of 36 — the lowest score since 2019. 

Indeed, this is not an isolated problem. Since 2019, Black students have scored lowest or tied for lowest with students who identify as American Indian/Alaska Native.

In a statement, ACT CEO Janet Godwin noted that growing numbers of high school seniors are “leaving high school without meeting any of the college readiness benchmarks, even as student GPAs continue to rise and students report that they feel prepared to be successful in college.” 

Godwin said the hard truth is that not enough is being done to ensure that graduates are truly ready for postsecondary success in college and career, and those systemic problems require sustained action and support at the policy level. But teachers and principals can’t solve the problem alone.

“It is a shared national priority and imperative,” Godwin said.

A Trend of Systemic Educational Inequity

“ACT has always measured what students are learning in high school, and connecting it to what colleges and universities tell us are most important for students to know and understand to be successful in their college courses,” Rose Babington, senior director of state and federal programs at ACT, tells Word In Black. 

The score decline that students experienced in the 2022 graduating class is a concern because it reflects both the impact of the pandemic on students as well as a much longer 30-year trend that points to fundamental, systemic inequities in education, Babington says.

In 2022, just under 1.4 million high school students took the ACT, down from roughly 1.8 million in 2019. The organization’s research shows that students who do well on the test have about a 50% chance of earning a B or better in college classes and a 75% chance of earning a C.   

“We know that an ACT score doesn’t define a student, it doesn’t define the person, and represents one day that a student took a test in their life,” Babington says. But she says the ACT score creates opportunities for admissions, scholarships, placement into classes, and even majors. 

Is the ACT Actually Helping Black Students?

However, according to FairTest — an organization that has spent the past 40 years working “to promote equitable and reasonable assessment of teachers, students, and school systems” — the ACT contributes to inequities in education and life. 

The test “consistently under-predicts the performance of females in college and over-predicts the performance of males,” according to FairTest. And that’s even though girls and women earn better grades at both the high school and college levels.

FairTest says that given that Black and other minority students score lower than white students, “Rigid use of the ACT for admissions will produce freshman classes with very few minorities and with no appreciable gain in academic quality.”

The ACT is “very effective at eliminating academically promising low-income and under-represented minority students who apply with strong academic records but relatively low ACT scores,” notes FairTest. 

The organization found a move to being test-optional helps colleges be more diverse with “no drop off in academic quality.”

How to Help Black Students 

Babington says the scores indicate a bigger systemic question of how to work with communities and policymakers to implement changes that apply to COVID-19 cohorts so Black students can be successful after high school.

One common-sense recommendation she gives is to ensure students are taking the most challenging high school curriculum. 

“When students are taking that core curriculum, they’re scoring significantly higher than students who are not taking that core curriculum,” she says. 

However, that hinges on ensuring Black students actually have access to advanced courses, like AP classes. Research from Education Trust shows 225,000 Black and Latino students don’t have access to advanced classes, even though data shows enrollment in these courses is linked to increased scores on exit exams. 

One encouraging point says Babington is the number of Black students who retest for the ACT is higher than the national average of students who retest.

“Students are saying, ‘I’m going to test again, and I want to get that higher score, and really show my abilities and put my best foot forward when I’m going into the college admissions process.”