The best high schools should also have the highest ACT and SAT scores given that their purpose is to prepare graduating students for a college or career. So what do we know of the over 50,000 students who make up Louisiana’s graduating Class of 2020? Only 42 scored a perfect 36 on the ACT; although a clear majority have plans for postsecondary education, less than half of them are ready for college; and there is a yawning racial achievement gap that shows little sign of narrowing.
In the 2020 graduating class, 53,488 Louisiana students took the ACT; their mean composite score was an 18.7 out of a possible 36. For comparison, 2019’s graduating class had about 1,000 more students and scored marginally higher, with a mean composite of 18.8. Nationally, the average composite score was a 20.6 (down from 2019’s mean composite of 20.7).
(Top image caption – Haynes Academy for Advanced Studies had the highest average 2020 ACT scores.)
Since 2013, Louisiana has offered the ACT for free to all high school juniors; this requirement means that Louisiana’s data is remarkably complete. In 2020, it was one of 15 states where an estimated 100% of graduates took the ACT. Among these, it tied with Oklahoma for third-lowest average score; only Mississippi (18.2) and Nevada (17.9) scored lower. (Utah had the highest scores, averaging a 20.2.)
In general, states with higher testing levels tend to have lower average scores. (They include results from students whose future plans may not include college-level coursework, for instance.) In states where standardized testing like the ACT is optional, most test-takers are self-selecting and academically advanced, which is reflected in their test scores. For example, consider Massachusetts, which had the highest average ACT scores in the nation (26.0), but administered tests to only 18% of graduates.
ACT College Readiness Benchmarks
The ACT’s “College Readiness Benchmarks” are the scores (out of 36) on the subject area tests that indicate a student’s chances of college success. The ACT believes that meeting the benchmarks for English, Reading, Mathematics, and Science gives a student a 50% chance of earning a B or higher or a 75% chance of getting a C or higher in a corresponding freshman-level college course. Unchanged since 2013, these benchmark scores and their college course equivalents are:
English (English Composition) – 18
Reading (Social Sciences) – 22
Math (College Algebra) – 22
Science (Biology) – 23
Since 2015, the ACT has also offered a College Readiness Benchmark for coursework in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), based on scores on the Math & Science subject area tests. Because college-level STEM coursework tends to be more academically challenging (for instance, many STEM freshmen begin with Calculus instead of Algebra), ACT has determined that the benchmark ACT score is significantly higher for STEM than in other subject areas. Meeting the STEM benchmark indicates a 50% chance of earning a B or higher in identified college-level STEM courses. The benchmark score is:
Math & Science (STEM) – 26
Half of Louisiana’s Juniors are Not College-Ready
Louisiana’s Class of 2020 lags significantly behind the national average for students meeting ACT College Readiness Benchmarks (CRBs) in all subject areas. Just under half of Louisiana students (49%) are prepared for college English, the only subject area in which Louisiana graduates are less than 10% behind the national average. About one-third (31%) of students met the Reading benchmark, and about one-fourth are college-ready in Math (22%) and Science (24%).
2020’s results continue a long-term trend of decreasing college-readiness among Louisiana seniors. Nearly half of all students (48%) failed to meet college benchmarks in all subject areas, up 2% from 2019 and up nearly 10% from five years ago. Interestingly, the number of students who show college-readiness in all four subject areas has held relatively steady over the same period, suggesting that there is a widening achievement gap rather than just an overall worsening of scores.
One bright spot amidst the bad news: Louisiana’s students show a slight improvement in Science, where the percent of college-ready seniors rose nearly one percentage point from 2019.
Louisiana ACT Scores Reveal a Racial Achievement Gap
Sadly, one of the biggest indicators of ACT success is one over which students have no control: their racial background. Nationally, Asian Americans have the highest rates of success, followed by white students. Students who identify as Black or African American score the lowest, just behind students with American Indian heritage. (Students who identify as either Hispanic or Pacific Islander score somewhere in the middle.)
Louisiana’s 2020 results closely mirror these nationwide trends. While 36% of white students and 49% of Asian students met three or more College Readiness Benchmarks, only 8% of Black graduates did so. Although the achievement gap between Black and white students has narrowed slightly over the past two years, this is almost wholly due to white students performing more poorly on the ACT, rather than a marked improvement in Black students’ scores.
This underperformance of Black students is particularly concerning because they make up nearly one third of Louisiana’s senior class (just behind white students, who comprise 45%). In other words, to close the achievement gap between white and Black graduates, Louisiana would need to improve the scores of nearly 5,000 Black students. (In contrast, to close the gap between white and Latino students, who make up a far smaller portion of the graduating class, just under 600 Latino graduates’ scores would need to show improvement.)
How to Improve ACT Scores
Luckily for students looking to increase their chances of ACT success, there are several actions they can take which are statistically likely to improve their scores.
Focus on schoolwork and take academically challenging classes. Students who do better in school nearly always do better overall on standardized tests like the ACT. For instance, 2020 Louisiana graduates who took four years of high school English scored an average of 5.9 points better on the English ACT than those who had taken less than four years of English.
Take the ACT more than once. There is a clear statistical advantage to retesting; in 2020, the average composite score of Louisiana students who took the ACT two or more times was 20.9, 5 points higher than the average composite score (15.9) of those who took the test only once. Students worried about the cost of retesting should consider ACT’s fee waiver program, which allows eligible students to test for free.
Spend time studying and preparing specifically for the ACT. Taking practice tests helps students familiarize themselves with the content and the format of the test and gives them specific feedback. In addition, working with a tutor can be an effective way of improving a student’s weakest areas and developing test-taking strategies. Piqosity offers a full suite of free ACT Practice materials and analyses of previously-released ACT tests, perfect for students looking to increase their chances of ACT success.
Louisiana’s Colleges are Popular and Affordable
About 70% of Louisiana’s Class of 2020 aspire to postsecondary education, with over half of those aiming for a four-year bachelor’s degree. A majority of these college-bound students likely want to remain within the borders of the Pelican State, at least if they’re anything like the Class of 2019, who sent 70% of their ACT score reports to public in-state colleges.
Evan holds a Master of Music from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and a Bachelor of Music from the Eastman School of Music. He was a National Merit Scholar. He is the Principal Flutist of the Pacific Northwest Ballet Orchestra.