Why are test scores dropping?: New data reveals a decline in standardized test scores nationwide.

According to a report released on October 5, ACT test scores of this year’s high school graduates have hit the lowest in over 30 years across the United States, falling for the fifth consecutive year as a result of COVID-related disruption.

Studies have linked virtual learning during the pandemic to difficulties in students’ math and reading comprehension when students connected less with their peers and teachers while facing at-home distractions.

In the 2019-2021 school year, the vast majority of colleges allowed students to apply without presenting test scores because so many test sites were closed or at limited capacity due to the pandemic. “The vast majority of colleges went test-optional in 2020-2021 and many have continued that policy, [so] the number of students taking standardized tests declined,” Ms. Vagenas, a college counselor at Bolles, explained.

However, this decline can’t be credited solely to pandemic-related issues, but to a lack of preparedness and the decision to go test-optional at many schools as well. ACT scores had been declining for five consecutive years, showing a trend that began long before the pandemic.

This decline has largely been attributed to a lack of overall preparation for the exams, with only 22% of students in 2022 who took the test meeting all four subject area benchmarks (math, reading, science, and English), while 42% met none according to the ACT. Though the number of students taking the ACT increased by 55,000 from last year, the total number of 1.35 million students who took the exam remains lower than it had been pre-pandemic.

“To compare pre-pandemic data to that gathered during the pabdemic is complicated since so many variables have changed.” – Daphne Vagenas

This academic decline doesn’t apply only to seniors and ACT scores; a report released last month from the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that 9-year-olds’ math scores showed their largest decline ever, and reading levels had their biggest drop since 1990. SAT scores took a similar hit, with the average score of the graduating class 10 points lower than the year before.
Vagenas has been a college counselor at Bolles for 23 years and previously worked in college admissions at The University of South Carolina and Miami University. As a college counselor at Bolles, Vagenas helps seniors prepare applications, builds college lists with juniors, begins college research with sophomores, introduces freshmen to SCOIR, and of course, guides students through testing.

“Standardized testing provides a common point of reference for colleges when they are reviewing a student’s academic credentials.” With no common curriculum in the United States, and each school calculating GPAs and grading on different scales, standardized testing can be used as a way to differentiate between students’ performances. Daily classroom performance is typically the best indicator of how students will perform in college, so the ability to choose whether or not to present scores appears to be a great option, but it’s not always that simple.

“That’s one less item for the college to consider which means that all the other parts of a student’s application will carry more weight,” Vagenas said, “by placing more emphasis on the other parts of their application, an applicant may not be successful in the review process if those other parts are not strong enough to be competitive in that school’s applicant pool. Each student must carefully consider whether or not to submit their test scores (if a school is test-optional) to each of their colleges and their decision may be different at various schools.”

“Standardized testing causes varying levels of anxiety for many students and the college counseling team is committed to limiting that anxiety,” Vagenas said. To help with easing this stress, students at Bolles are encouraged to take practice SAT and ACTs to decide which is best for them and focus on preparing for it as though submitting testing is mandatory. “We believe it is better to have test scores and not need them than to need test scores and not have them.”