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Are American Students Prepared for College?

What Do Low ACT Scores Tell Us About Educational Readiness?

By now you’ve probably heard that ACT test scores for the class of 2023 were the worst in at least 32 years, raising concerns about the academic readiness of college students. The average score for the class of 2023 on the ACT was 19.5 out of a possible 36, according to data released by the ACT a few weeks ago. The ACT also revealed that scores on individual subjects in the test, such as math and reading, were below the ACT's benchmark for college readiness.

The latest scores mark yet another decline in the average ACT test score after last year's scores marked a 30-year low. The average ACT score has continuously declined for the past six years, and the decline is raising concerns about the college readiness of high school graduates.

ACT CEO Janet Godwin said in a press release that the decline in ACT scores has coincided with a rise in the number of students who graduate without meeting any of the college readiness benchmarks despite rising GPAs and self-reporting among students that they feel ready for college.

"The hard truth is that we are not doing enough to ensure that graduates are truly ready for postsecondary success in college and career," Godwin said. "These systemic problems require sustained action and support at the policy level. This is not up to teachers and principals alone — it is a shared national priority and imperative.”

I couldn’t agree more. We need to wake up to the reality that we are losing our competitive edge when it comes to learning. And, without learning how will we keep up with a rapidly changing technological world?

The Nation’s Report Card

The National Assessment of Educational Progress shows a long-term trend of reading and math exams, often called the “Nation’s Report Card.” It’s conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics. The exams were administered to age-9 students in early 2020 before the pandemic and then again in early 2022, the group said.

The average scores in 2022 declined 5 points in reading and 7 points in math compared to 2020 – the largest decline in reading since 1990 and the first ever decline in math, the organization said.

US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona told CNN the drop in scores was connected to the lack of in-person classroom education during the Covid-19 pandemic and said the US is in an education crisis. Yes, but let’s be real. The decline has been occurring over many years. Covid just exacerbated the deficiencies.

Reading, Math, and Science

It is a sad day, indeed, as the ability to learn complex material continues its downward path with no end in sight for American kids. What can be done to reverse, or at least stem the rising tide of failure in education? First, parents must get involved in their kid’s education. They should demand extra time be spent on Reading, Math, Science, and critical thinking skills, for starters. Second, the school districts must take these results seriously and demand that the education system get tougher on kids. We can’t afford to pass them along to the next grade if they are truly unprepared for it. Worse yet, is the tendency in some places to “dumb down” the curriculum because so many kids can’t keep up. This hurts the high achievers because they won’t be challenged like they should, given the lesser curriculum. We’re now hearing about doing away with advanced placement in our schools. Third, Congress needs to hold hearings because our schools are failing. We have a national crisis!

Believe me, money is not the answer. What’s lacking is a weak work ethic. These kids don’t have it drummed into them at an early age as, Asian students do, that learning and achieving good grades are the most important priorities in their young lives. I’ve observed that most Asian students are told by their parents at an early age that hard work and achievement are an integral part of a happy, successful life -- and builds harmony.

Another problem with our educational system is that teachers are not respected like they once were, and they must deal with rudeness, emotional problems, and violence in the schools like never before.

Are U.S. Students Choosing the Easy Path to Success?

The chart below shows how badly U.S. students lag their peers in foreign countries. When comparing achievement scores in reading, math, and science, U.S. 15-year-olds rank 24th, 36th, and 28th respectively. This puts them behind students in countries such as Poland, Liechtenstein, and Estonia. I find this intolerable.


The second chart below shows the results of a Harris Poll about what careers kids from the U.S., U.K., and China aspire to, which we can call their values. It’s startling that U.S. and U.K. kids want to be known as a vlogger or social media influencer while kids from China want to be astronauts. This means they’re willing to put in the time and effort to learn the most important, and difficult, subject matter – Astrophysics. Again, we can attribute the results to the work ethic of kids in China. Amadeo says that many companies simply outsource their tech jobs overseas so that there are fewer high-paying jobs going to American citizens because they may not be qualified.


PISA Assessment

In another assessment, The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), tests 15-year-old students around the world and is administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). In 2018, when the test was last administered, the U.S. placed 11th out of 79 countries in science. It did worse in math, ranking 30th.

The U.S. scored 478 in math, below the OECD average of 489. That's well below the scores of the top five, all of which were Asian nations: Singapore at 569, Macao at 555, Hong Kong at 551, Taiwan at 531, and Japan at 527. China was not included in this ranking, since only four provinces participated.

In science, the U.S. scored at 502, above the OECD average of 489. The top five highest-scoring countries were Singapore at 551, Macao at 544, Estonia at 530, Japan at 529, and Finland at 522.

Despite the low scores dating back decades, some Americans see no problem with the state of U.S. education. In 2008, nearly half of those who participated in an Associated Press poll said that American students’ achievement test scores were the same as or better than those of children in other industrialized nations. However, 90% of them recognized that education helps economic growth.

We need to take notice of the fact that the U.S. ranks near the bottom in a survey of students’ math skills in 30 industrialized countries and lower than their peers in other subjects. We need to insist that schools get back to the basics – reading, writing, and arithmetic, and now we must add technology to the mix.

Finally, the IMD World Competitiveness Center reports that the U.S. is ranked 10th in its 2020 Competitiveness Report. After ranking first in 2018, the U.S. fell to the third spot in 2019. The seven-point tumble to 10th place in 2020 represents the lowest the U.S. has ever been in the annual ranking system by far.

What additional evidence do we need to be convinced we are on a downward slide in terms of educational achievement? Will things get better once the large number of immigrants now coming into our country enter our schools, or will it lead to more compromises in education achievement? Is anyone out there on the campaign trail looking at this? Talking about this? I don’t think so and that’s a national shame!

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, PhD on October 17, 2023. Find out more about Steve’s professional activities on his website ( You can sign up for his newsletter and connect on LinkedIn (