Will Ohio’s ACT scores dip next year?

Getty Images/Paperkites

The Statehouse newspaper, Gongwer, recently ran a piece covering the ACT test results for Ohio’s graduating class of 2017. The headline trumpeted the fact that Ohio’s scores again topped the national average—definitely good news. But Ohio may not continue to outpace the rest of the country on this important gauge of college readiness—something it has accomplished for the past decade.

The reason doesn’t have much to do with the performance of Ohio schools or students; rather it has to do with the expanding pool of students who take the ACT. Instead of voluntary participation, as in the past, Ohio has now begun universal administration of the ACT (or SAT)[1] starting with the class of 2018. Requiring across-the-board testing—and paying for those costs—is sound state policy. There’s no reason why any student should be denied at least one opportunity to see how they stack up on college entrance exams. As a recent study indicates, universal testing can boost the four-year college-going rates of low-income students. Ohio lawmakers enacted the requirement that students take an entrance exam in a package of 2014 reforms that aim to better prepare young people for college or career; today, Ohio and twenty-four other states require either the SAT or ACT.

But Ohio’s average ACT score could slide as more lower-achieving pupils, who may not have participated in previous years, now take it. Consider the chart below, displaying average ACT scores from several decent-sized states that had universal ACT participation for the class of 2017. While Ohio’s average score looks impressive at first glance, it’s important to note that just 75 percent of its class of 2017 took the ACT—the last year in which it was optional and in all likelihood, mainly pursued by students who were considering college. If non-participants tend to struggle academically, then Ohio’s current average is somewhat inflated relative to the score it would have attained had all students participated.

Chart: Average ACT composite scores for Ohio versus similar-sized states with universal participation for the class of 2017.

Note: The chart shows “composite” scores, an average across the various ACT subjects (English, math, reading, and science) and is reported on a scale of 1 to 36. To put this score into context, The Ohio State University typically admits students with ACT scores between 28 and 32.

We cannot yet know for sure whether the class of 2018 will continue to outperform the national average on the ACT. I’m guessing that the “true” average score in Ohio fits somewhere between Minnesota and Wisconsin. Either way, it’ll be interesting to keep tabs in the coming years on the trends as a more representative population of Ohio students take the ACT.

[1] Districts could adopt the SAT instead of the ACT, which would reduce ACT test participation. Traditionally, few Ohio students take the SAT (less than 20 percent, among which a certain proportion would have taken both ACT and SAT), so it is likely that most districts will opt for the ACT over the SAT.

Aaron Churchill
Aaron Churchill is the Ohio Research Director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.