Falling ACT Scores and the Dumbing Down of America


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The annual National Assessment of Educational Progress scores released this week offered depressing news about student K-8 learning. But the news is also bad for high school seniors, as the results of the 2022 ACT tests used for college admission show.

The national average ACT score for the class of 2022 fell to 19.8 out of 36, down from 20.3 in 2021, according to data released this month by the nonprofit that administers the test. The results deserve more attention than they received at the time.

Those in charge of American education may be inclined to use the pandemic lockdowns as an excuse, and two years of Zoom classes no doubt hurt. But this is the fifth consecutive year that ACT scores have declined, and the first time the average score has dropped below 20 since 1991. English scores fell to 19 out of 36, down from 19.6 last year.

The decline is all the more worrisome because fewer students are taking the test since fewer schools require it. About 1.35 million took the test this year, compared with 1.91 million in 2018. Playing down standardized tests lets schools rely on more subjective measures for admission, such as race or diversity.

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Janet Godwin

notes “rapidly growing numbers of seniors leaving high school without meeting the college-readiness benchmark in any of the subjects we measure.” These benchmarks, for math or science, say, try to predict whether students are prepared to succeed in college courses. More than 40% of seniors met none of the ACT’s benchmarks for college readiness. None. No doubt many of these students will head off to campus anyway, unprepared for basic English courses, much less calculus or organic chemistry. They can thank heaven for college grade inflation.

The high schoolers in America doing the worst are from low-income families. Only 10% of students from households earning less than $50,000 met all four readiness benchmarks, compared with roughly half from homes with income north of $150,000. This is particularly depressing because education has long been an engine of upward mobility.

This dumbing down of American youth should set off alarms, as students are learning less and less even as the world grows more competitive. U.S. K-12 education is failing, and it’s getting worse despite the hundreds of billions of additional dollars that politicians have shoveled into public schools.

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Review and Outlook: The woke get a wake-up call as voters recall three school board members for focusing on social justice issues over reopening classrooms (02/17/22). Images: Bloomberg News/Constanza Hevia H. for The Wall Street Journal Composite: Mark Kelly

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Appeared in the October 26, 2022, print edition as ‘The Dumbing Down of America.’

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