Math Readiness

Math Readiness Drops to 14-Year Low among US High School Graduates


Readiness in math is trending downward among ACT-tested US high school graduates, falling to its lowest mark in 14 years, according to The Condition of College and Career Readiness 2018, ACT’s annual score report. The report is based on 2018 graduates around the country who took the ACT test.

The percentage of ACT-tested graduates who met or surpassed the ACT College Readiness Benchmark in math—suggesting they are ready to succeed in a first-year college algebra class—fell to its lowest level since 2004; 40% of 2018 graduates met the math benchmark, down from a high of 46% in 2012.

In addition, students’ average score on the ACT math test dropped to its lowest level in more than 20 years—down to 20.5 (on a scale of 1 to 36), continuing a slide from 21.1 in 2012 to 20.7 last year. Student readiness in math was on an upswing from the early 2000s to 2012, but it has gradually declined since then.

“The negative trend in math readiness is a red flag for our country, given the growing importance of math and science skills in the increasingly tech-driven US and global job market,” said ACT CEO Marten Roorda. “It is vital that we turn this trend around for the next generation and make sure students are learning the math skills they need for success in college and career.”

The results are based on the more than 1.9 million 2018 graduates—55 percent of the national graduating class—who took the ACT® test.


English Readiness Also Dropping

Readiness in English has also been trending down over the past several years, dropping from 64% in 2015 to 60% this year, the lowest level since the benchmarks were introduced.

Readiness levels in reading (46%) and science (36%) were both down one percentage point from last year but are showing no long-term trends either upward or downward. Science remains the subject area in which students are least likely to be prepared for college coursework.

More Students at Bottom of Readiness Scale

A growing percentage of students are falling at the bottom of the preparedness scale. Thirty-five percent of 2018 graduates met none of the four ACT College Readiness Benchmarks, up from 31% in 2014 and from 33% last year. These students are likely to struggle in first-year college coursework in all four core subject areas.

In addition, slightly fewer ACT-tested graduates were well prepared for college coursework overall this year than last year. Thirty-eight percent of 2018 graduates met at least three of the four ACT College Readiness Benchmarks in the core subject areas, down from 39% in 2017 but the same as in 2016.

“Innovation is important in improving educational outcomes,” said Roorda. “One big step we can take is to make sure that our learning resources are designed in a way that is more personalized and better fits this generation’s way of consuming information. ACT is committing significant research and resources to this effort.”

Average ACT Composite Score Drops Back Down

The national average ACT composite score for the 2018 graduating class was 20.8, down from 21.0 last year but the same as in 2016.

Hispanic, African American Students Lag Behind

Hispanic and African American students continue to lag behind their white and Asian-American counterparts in terms of college readiness. Asian Americans remain the best prepared group as a whole; their average composite score rose this year compared to last year, while scores for students in all other racial/ethnic groups went down slightly.

Underserved Learners Struggle

College readiness levels remain markedly low overall for underserved learners (low-income, minority, and/or first-generation college students—who make up 43% of all ACT-tested graduates). Once again, fewer than a fourth of underserved graduates were well prepared for college coursework overall compared to slightly more than half of students who were not considered underserved.

“Underserved students often face obstacles that their peers do not,” said Roorda. “We must work hard to ensure they have equal access to a quality education, including challenging courses that focus on college-readiness skills and planning resources to help them create a pathway to success. ACT is focused on improving equity through our Center for Equity in Learning and other efforts.”

During the 2017-2018 academic year, ACT awarded more than 500,000 fee waivers to low-income high school students across the nation, allowing them to take the ACT for free. Unfortunately, 28% of these fee waivers were not used, suggesting that over 150,000 eligible students missed out on an opportunity to take the ACT for free during the past year alone.

STEM Readiness Down Slightly

Twenty percent of graduates met or surpassed the ACT STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) Benchmark, which represents readiness for first-year courses typically required for a STEM major. The average national STEM score—a combination of the ACT math and science scores—was 20.9 in 2018, down from 21.1 in 2017.

College Aspirations High, but Often Not Realized

Student aspirations are high. Around three-fourths (76%) of 2018 ACT-tested graduates said they aspire to postsecondary education. Most of those students said they aspire to a four-year degree or higher.

A significant portion of students who hope to attend college, however, don’t actually enroll. While 82% of last year’s 2017 ACT-tested graduates said they aspired to attend college, only 66% actually ended up enrolling. If this “aspirations gap” were fully closed, an additional 322,526 of last year’s ACT-tested graduates would have enrolled in postsecondary education.

Once again this year, only 4 percent of ACT-tested graduates indicated they plan to pursue a career in education. These numbers point to no relief in sight for the US teacher shortage, which is projected to grow to over 100,000 educators by 2021.


ACT’s report provides specific recommendations to help meet its goal for all young people to have access to a high-quality, holistic education that will get them on target for college and career readiness by the time they graduate from high school:

  • Give educators the resources they need to help improve educational outcomes.

  • Assess student learning and implement improvement strategies starting early in students’ educational careers.

  • Provide equitable resources for underserved students.

  • Ensure that students’ education is holistic and addresses the needs of the “whole learner.”

  • Collect, handle, and use assessment data responsibly, with special attention to maintaining its security and quality.

About the Report

The report includes ACT score results from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, including 16 states that required all students to take the ACT as part of their statewide testing programs and another three states that funded ACT testing on an optional basis. It also includes the results from more than 1,100 individual school districts across the country that administered the ACT to all students.