Oklahoma’s average ACT composite score climbed 1 point in 2021, though far fewer students took the exam due to pandemic cancellations. 

The state’s class of 2021 averaged a 19.7 on the ACT, according to data released Wednesday (see table below). The national average was 20.3 on the exam, which has a maximum score of 35.

But Oklahoma’s participation dropped to an estimated 58% after several years of achieving 100% due to the state’s requirement that all 11th graders take a college readiness exam at school for accountability. Nearly all Oklahoma districts administer the ACT, though a few use SAT.

These students would have been in 11th grade in 2020, when state tests were canceled at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. All states received federal waivers from testing that year. 

The Oklahoma Department of Education planned to pay to administer the ACT or SAT in the fall of 2020 when those students returned for their senior year, but the Legislature cut the department’s budget by $78 million, including $5.4 million less for testing. 

Students could take the test on their own at a national testing site, but there are barriers to doing so, including cost, transportation, work and family obligations, and coronavirus-related closures. 

This year, the state expanded the exams offered to students using federal COVID-19 relief funding. Schools could provide optional test dates for the ACT, SAT and PSAT for students in 10th through 12th grades. The PSAT is the qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship program. 

Beginning with the 2017 graduating class, Oklahoma began offering either ACT or SAT for free during school hours to all juniors. That year’s seniors averaged a 19.4 composite, a one-point compared to the previous year. 

A decrease in scores typically occurs when the pool of test takers is widened. 

Nationally, though, both the number of students who took the ACT and the average score declined. U.S. 2021 graduates’ average composite score of 20.3 was down from 20.6 in 2020 and the lowest score in more than a decade, according to ACT. 

Among the class of 2021, just 1.3 million students took the ACT, compared to 1.7 million 2020 graduates and 2 million students from the Class of 2017. Far fewer students took the SAT as well, according to College Board

Most universities across the country have opted to not require students to submit standardized test scores, with those policies expanding significantly since 2020. That has been good news for students, particularly those from diverse backgrounds, said Bob Shaeffer, executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, an advocacy organization that works to end biases and misuses of standardized testing. 

Test-optional schools consider applicants’ grade point average, class rank and other achievements. About two dozen Oklahoma universities are included on a list of test-optional schools maintained by FairTest.

“In general, schools that went test-optional got more applicants, better academically qualified applicants and more diversity,” Shaeffer said. “It’s been a win-win for students and admissions offices.” 

The freshman class at the University of Oklahoma in Norman is the most diverse in the school’s history, according to university data. Of its 4,595 freshman students, 38% are non-white and 25% are first-generation students, meaning they do not have a parent who completed a bachelor’s degree.

Just 65% reported an ACT or SAT score in their application, compared to nearly 99% in 2020, the data shows

Oklahoma State University in Stillwater also reported admitting its most diverse class of students ever, with historically marginalized and underrepresented students making up 30% of the incoming class. Twenty percent of the freshman class are first-generation students. 

Shaeffer said he believes many universities will maintain test-optional policies after the pandemic.

Average ACT Scores by State for the Graduating Class of 2021

Best practice is to compare states with similar participation rates. Benchmark scores predict a 50% chance a student will obtain a grade of B or higher or 75% chance of obtaining a C or higher in the corresponding college course.
StateEstimated Percent of Graduates TestedAverage Composite ScorePercent Meeting English BenchmarkPercent Meeting Reading BenchmarkPercent Meeting Math BenchmarkPercent Meeting Science Benchmark
North Dakota10019.651373532
North Carolina9218.943362927
South Dakota5521.665524645
South Carolina5018.643352526
West Virginia3020.868493236
New Mexico2320.758473637
District of Columbia1925.676706666
New Jersey1225.183706762
New York926.388777673
New Hampshire426.689797571
Rhode Island425.889797067
Source: ACT

Jennifer Palmer has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2016 and covers education. Contact her at (405) 761-0093 or jpalmer@oklahomawatch.org. Follow her on Twitter @jpalmerOKC.

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