Average ACT scores and percentage of graduates taking the ACT

Tyler York
Average ACT scores and percentage of graduates taking the ACT

One of the blessings of the US education system is that they release comprehensive data from time to time that gives you a complete picture of each state’s performance. In this post, we’re going to break down the results from one such data dump: Average ACT scores and the percentage of graduates taking the ACT. There is a ton of interesting information in there, including which states require that their student body take the ACT exam, changes in how many students take the ACT exam, and what the average ACT score was for each section of the ACT for students from each state. Let’s dig in!

ACT math geometry formulas
Illustration by BoykoPictures

Which states require their students to take the ACT exam?

It’s clear to see that usage of the ACT is spreading rapidly, as 10 states started requiring that all of their students take the ACT exam and only 2 states removed the requirement. There are now 17 states that require all of their students take the ACT exam.

7 states already had 100% ACT participation in their student population and stayed that way:

  • Colorado
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • North Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Utah
  • Wyoming

Ten states had their ACT participation increase to 100% of their student population: 

  • Alabama
  • Arkansas
  • Minnesota
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • Montana
  • Nevada
  • Oklahoma
  • South Carolina
  • Wisconsin

Two states had their ACT participation decrease from 100% of their student population: 

  • Illinois
  • Michigan

Which states had the largest increase in ACT test takers?

Nevada had the largest increase in ACT test takers between the two periods with a 68% increase in just four years. States that made the ACT required saw the largest increases in ACT participation. Additionally, Hawaii and Alaska both saw their participation skyrocket even without requiring the exam be taken. All in all, 32 states saw their ACT participation increase between 2013 and 2017, and only nine saw their ACT participation decline.

The states with the largest increase in their ACT participation among their students were: 

  1. Nevada: 68% (became required)
  2. Hawaii: 50%
  3. South Carolina: 49% (became required)
  4. Wisconsin: 29% (became required)
  5. Montana: 28% (became required)
  6. Alaska: 28%
  7. Missouri: 26% (became required)
  8. Minnesota: 26% (became required)
  9. Oklahoma: 25% (became required)
  10. Alabama: 22% (became required)

Which states had the largest decrease in ACT test takers?

Michigan saw the largest decrease in ACT test takers by far, with a 71% decrease after they removed the requirement that all of their students take the ACT. Michigan students apparently were ready for the change! Illinois also removed the ACT requirement, but their students were clearly happier with the ACT, as Illinois only saw a 7% decrease in participation. Idaho also posted a large decrease of 11% without any change in requirements, showing that it is falling out of favor in that state. These are the only nine states that saw their ACT participation decrease between 2013 and 2017.

The states with the largest decrease in their ACT participation among their students were: 

  1. Michigan: -71% (removed requirement)
  2. Idaho: -11%
  3. Illinois: -7% (removed requirement)
  4. District of Columbia: -6%
  5. New Mexico: -4%
  6. Indiana: -3%
  7. Kansas: -2%
  8. Florida: -1%
  9. New Hampshire: -1%
Photo by Seth Dewey on Unsplash

Which states score the highest on the ACT?

New Hampshire is the state with the highest overall ACT score, with a composite score of 25.5! New England and the Northeast occupy 9 of the top 10 slots here and are consistently in the top slots in each section of the ACT as well. New England has always been known for its emphasis on education and its well-functioning public schools, and this looks to have paid off with the highest ACT scores in the nation.

The states that score the highest on the ACT are:

  1. New Hampshire: 25.5
  2. Massachusetts: 25.4
  3. Connecticut: 25.2
  4. Maine: 24.3
  5. District of Columbia: 24.2
  6. New York: 24.2
  7. Delaware: 24.1
  8. Michigan: 24.1
  9. Rhode Island: 24.0
  10. New Jersey: 23.9

Which states score the highest on the ACT English?

Connecticut is the state with the highest ACT English scores with a 25.5 average on the English section of the exam. New England again dominates the top ACT English scores. Whatever they’re feeding these English teachers, we need to get it to the rest of the country ASAP!

The states that score the highest on the ACT English are:

  1. Connecticut: 25.5
  2. New Hampshire: 25.4
  3. Massachusetts: 25.4
  4. District of Columbia: 24.4
  5. Maine: 24.2
  6. Delaware: 24.1
  7. Michigan: 24.1
  8. Rhode Island: 24.0
  9. New York: 23.8
  10. New Jersey: 23.8

Which states score the highest on the ACT Mathematics?

Massachusetts is the state with the highest ACT Mathematics scores with a 25.3 average score. With Massachusetts as one of the best overall states for the ACT and the home of the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it’s not surprising that it is the top math state. Its New England neighbors are not far behind though, with New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Maine all in the top 10. New York and New Jersey, feeders to Wall Street and the finance industry, also have strong showings here with a 24.0 and 23.8 ACT Mathematics score respectively.

The states that score the highest on the ACT Mathematics are:

  1. Massachusetts: 25.3
  2. New Hampshire: 25.1
  3. Connecticut: 24.6
  4. Maine: 24.0
  5. New York: 24.0
  6. New Jersey: 23.8
  7. Michigan: 23.7
  8. District of Columbia: 23.5
  9. Delaware: 23.4
  10. Pennsylvania: 23.4

Which states score the highest on the ACT Reading?

The New England trifecta of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Connecticut have the highest ACT Reading scores with 26.0, 25.9, and 25.6 respectively. Following closely behind is the District of Columbia, with 24.9, and then Maine and Delaware with 24.8. These are all fantastic scores and show each state’s dedication to reading in their education.

The states that score the highest on the ACT Reading are:

  1. New Hampshire: 26.0
  2. Massachusetts: 25.9
  3. Connecticut: 25.6
  4. District of Columbia: 24.9
  5. Maine: 24.8
  6. Delaware: 24.8
  7. Rhode Island: 24.7
  8. New York: 24.6
  9. Virginia: 24.6
  10. Michigan: 24.5

Which states score the highest on the ACT Science?

New Hampshire has the highest ACT Science score with 24.9, and Massachusetts and Connecticut are not far behind with 24.7 and 24.6 respectively. While the ACT Science list remains dominated by New England, New York and Michigan both round out the top five with strong scores. This section is less about science itself and more about logical reasoning, so it’s fitting that the finance and automotive industry capitals are both high on this list.

The states that score the highest on the ACT Science are:

  1. New Hampshire: 24.9
  2. Massachusetts: 24.7
  3. Connecticut: 24.6
  4. New York: 23.9
  5. Michigan: 23.8
  6. Maine: 23.7
  7. Delaware: 23.6
  8. District of Columbia: 23.5
  9. Virginia: 23.5
  10. Rhode Island: 23.4
Photo by Ameer Basheer on Unsplash

Which states score the lowest on the ACT?

Nevada scored the lowest on the ACT overall with a 17.8 average composite score, and was the lowest average ACT score in each of the four sections. Nevada also had the largest negative change in all but one category. It is likely that a good portion of this change is due to the fact that they went from 32% participation to 100% (required) participation, which probably forced a lot of students that didn’t want to participate in the ACT exam to do so. All of the other states on this list besides New Mexico and Hawaii also required their students to take the ACT during this period, so it feels similarly likely that these low scores are correlated with requiring the ACT. Hawaii also saw its participation increase from 40% to 90%, and also has one of the lowest ACT composite scores with 19.0. Only New Mexico saw its ACT participation decrease but still landed in the top 10 lowest scoring states list with a composite score of 19.7.

The states that score the lowest on the ACT are:

  1. Nevada: 17.8
  2. Mississippi: 18.6
  3. South Carolina: 18.7
  4. Hawaii: 19.0
  5. North Carolina: 19.1
  6. Alabama: 19.2
  7. Oklahoma: 19.4
  8. Arkansas: 19.4
  9. Louisiana: 19.5
  10. New Mexico: 19.7

Which states score the lowest on the ACT English?

Nevada scored the lowest on the ACT English with an average score of 16.3 – more than a full point lower than the next lowest score, South Carolina at 17.5 Similar to above, Nevada and many of the other states here transitioned to require the ACT between the two data periods. Only New Mexico, Arizona, and Alaska did not.

The states that score the lowest on the ACT English are:

  1. Nevada: 16.3
  2. South Carolina: 17.5
  3. Hawaii: 17.8
  4. North Carolina: 17.8
  5. Mississippi: 18.2
  6. Oklahoma: 18.5
  7. New Mexico: 18.6
  8. Arizona: 18.6
  9. Alaska: 18.7
  10. Alabama: 18.9

Which states score the lowest on the ACT Mathematics?

Nevada had the lowest ACT Mathematics score with an 18.0 average, though many of the other states on this list were close. Mississippi had the second lowest ACT Mathematics score, with an average of 18.1. All of these states transitioned to requiring the ACT except Hawaii between the two data periods, and Hawaii saw its ACT test taking percent more than double. It is clear that the students avoiding the ACT beforehand did not perform well on the ACT Math section.

The states that score the lowest on the ACT Mathematics are:

  1. Nevada: 18.0
  2. Mississippi: 18.1
  3. Alabama: 18.4
  4. South Carolina: 18.6 
  5. Oklahoma: 18.8
  6. Louisiana: 18.8
  7. Arkansas: 19.0
  8. Hawaii: 19.2
  9. Tennessee: 19.2
  10. North Carolina: 19.3

Which states score the lowest on the ACT Reading?

Nevada had the lowest ACT Reading score with an average of 18.1, a good bit lower than any other state on this list. Similar to the other categories, 9/10 of the states on this list had massive increases in the number of ACT test takers to include many who did not take it in the previous period. Arizona is the only state that did not dramatically increase it’s ACT test taking population but still saw a bottom-ten average ACT Reading score of 20.1.

The states that score the lowest on the ACT Reading are:

  1. Nevada: 18.1
  2. Mississippi: 18.8
  3. South Carolina: 19.1
  4. Hawaii: 19.2
  5. North Carolina: 19.6
  6. Alabama: 19.7
  7. Arkansas: 19.7
  8. Louisiana: 19.8
  9. Oklahoma: 20.1
  10. Arizona: 20.1

Which states score the lowest on the ACT Science?

Not to sound like a broken record here, but most of these states started requiring the ACT and thus saw their ACT scores correspondingly decrease. The only surprise here is Florida, which had flat ACT participation but still came in the bottom 10 for the ACT Science with a 19.4 average score.

The states that score the lowest on the ACT Science are:

  1. Nevada: 18.2
  2. Mississippi: 18.8
  3. South Carolina: 18.9
  4. Hawaii: 19.3
  5. North Carolina: 19.3
  6. Alabama: 19.4
  7. Florida: 19.4
  8. Arkansas: 19.5
  9. Oklahoma: 19.6
  10. Louisiana: 19.6
Michigan had the highest increase in ACT scores in the United States
Photo by Gary Meulemans on Unsplash

Which states saw the biggest score improvements on the ACT?

Michigan saw a huge score improvement in most categories, with an average ACT composite score increase of 4.2 points! It is likely that Michigan’s increase in score was driven by removing the requirement from taking the exam. Because of that, the real star here is the District of Columbia, who saw huge gains in all categories with an ACT composite score gain of 3.8 points, more than double the next largest increase, while its ACT test takers only slightly decreased. Following DC, New England has a strong showing along with some states we haven’t seen yet like Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Here’s to the most improved!

The states that saw the biggest increase in their composite ACT scores between 2013 and 2017 are:

  1. Michigan: 4.2
  2. District of Columbia: 3.8
  3. New Hampshire: 1.7
  4. Rhode Island: 1.3
  5. Maryland: 1.3
  6. Massachusetts: 1.3
  7. Delaware: 1.2
  8. Connecticut: 1.2
  9. Virginia: 1.2
  10. Pennsylvania: 1.0

Which states saw the biggest score improvements on the ACT English?

Michigan saw the largest increase in their ACT English scores, with an average increase of 5.0. Next up, the District of Columbia saw a massive 4.6 increase in their average ACT English score – more than double the next highest score gain. After that, New England and the Northeast continue to dominate the ACT exam score leaderboard and also had the biggest improvements in their English scores.

The states that saw the biggest increase in their ACT English scores between 2013 and 2017 are:

  1. Michigan: 5.0
  2. District of Columbia: 4.6
  3. New Hampshire: 1.8
  4. Delaware: 1.6
  5. Rhode Island: 1.6
  6. Massachusetts: 1.6
  7. Connecticut: 1.5
  8. Maryland: 1.5
  9. New Jersey: 1.3
  10. New York: 1.2

Which states saw the biggest score improvements on the ACT Mathematics?

Michigan had the biggest increase in their ACT Mathematics score, with an average improvement of 3.8 points. Following closely behind, the District of Columbia saw its ACT Mathematics scores increase 3.0 points. Rounding out the list are New England and East Coast states that have also been the most improved in other categories, showing that their commitment to improving ACT scores is multifaceted. Virginia also makes its first appearance in the most improved category with a 0.8 average score increase on the ACT Mathematics.

The states that saw the biggest increase in their ACT Mathematics scores between 2013 and 2017 are:

  1. Michigan: 3.8
  2. District of Columbia: 3.0
  3. New Hampshire: 1.5
  4. Massachusetts: 0.9
  5. Rhode Island: 0.9
  6. Virginia: 0.8
  7. Maryland: 0.8
  8. Connecticut: 0.7
  9. Maine: 0.7
  10. Delaware: 0.6

Which states saw the biggest score improvements on the ACT Reading?

Many states dramatically increased their average ACT Reading scores, led by Michigan with an average score increase of 4.5 points, and the District of Columbia with an average score increase of 3.9 points. Following that, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, who were in the top 10 in ACT score increases for all categories, also saw their ACT Reading scores increase by 1.8 and 1.5 respectively. Virginia again appears with an average score increase of 1.5, and new to our top-10 lists is Illinois, which saw the 10th-largest ACT Reading score increase with a gain of 1.2 points.

The states that saw the biggest increase in their ACT Reading scores between 2013 and 2017 are:

  1. Michigan: 4.5
  2. District of Columbia: 3.9
  3. New Hampshire: 1.8
  4. Massachusetts: 1.5
  5. Virginia: 1.5
  6. Maryland: 1.5
  7. Delaware: 1.4
  8. Rhode Island: 1.4
  9. Connecticut: 1.2
  10. Illinois: 1.2

Which states saw the biggest score improvements on the ACT Science?

The District of Columbia saw the largest increase in its ACT Science scores in the nation, with an average score increase of 3.8 points. Michigan follows closely behind, with an average score increase of 3.6 points. Following that are the usual New England suspects and Virginia, who has another strong showing here, before a newcomer Pennsylvania at number 10 with an ACT Science score increase of 1.1 points.

The states that saw the biggest increase in their ACT Science scores between 2013 and 2017 are:

  1. District of Columbia: 3.8
  2. Michigan: 3.6
  3. New Hampshire: 1.7
  4. Massachusetts: 1.5
  5. Rhode Island: 1.4
  6. Connecticut: 1.3
  7. Virginia: 1.3
  8. Maryland: 1.3
  9. Delaware: 1.2
  10. Pennsylvania: 1.1
Photo by Dino Reichmuth on Unsplash

Which states saw the biggest score deterioration on the ACT?

Nevada had the largest ACT composite score decrease with -3.5, almost twice as large as the next state South Carolina. As we mentioned previously, the move to require the ACT drove this change for all states on the list except Hawaii and Alaska, and both of them saw their ACT participation double or more as well. Clearly, in the short term, requiring participation in the ACT exam will lead to a decrease of scores as more people take the test, though in the long term scores should rise as students get used to the expectation.

The states that saw the biggest decrease in their composite ACT scores between 2013 and 2017 are:

  1. Nevada: -3.5
  2. South Carolina: -1.7
  3. Wisconsin: -1.6
  4. Minnesota: -1.5
  5. Oklahoma: -1.4
  6. Alaska: -1.3
  7. Missouri: -1.2
  8. Alabama: -1.2
  9. Hawaii: -1.1
  10. Montana: -1.0

Which states saw the biggest score deterioration on the ACT English?

Biggest outlier here is Nevada with a 4.1 point drop in English scores. This was a key contributor to Nevada’s composite score decrease. This is far more than the rest of the states, even the other states that started requiring the ACT, so it seems that Nevada has some work to do. Washington also shows up on the list with an average score decrease of -1.2 points, even with only a small increase of 8% in ACT participation.

The states that saw the biggest decrease in their composite ACT scores between 2013 and 2017 are:

  1. Nevada: -4.1
  2. South Carolina: -2.2
  3. Oklahoma: -1.9
  4. Wisconsin: -1.8
  5. Minnesota: -1.8
  6. Alabama: -1.6
  7. Missouri: -1.6
  8. Alaska: -1.4
  9. Washington: -1.2
  10. Hawaii: -1.2

Which states saw the biggest score deterioration on the ACT Mathematics?

Nevada saw twice the next largest score decrease in the ACT Mathematics section, with an average decline of -3.5 points. All of these states started requiring the ACT or saw massive increases in participation, which shows that the ACT Math is still a challenge for students that are not ready for it.

The states that saw the biggest decrease in their composite ACT scores between 2013 and 2017 are:

  1. Nevada: -3.5
  2. South Carolina: -1.7
  3. Hawaii: -1.6
  4. Wisconsin: -1.6
  5. Minnesota: -1.6
  6. Alaska: -1.4
  7. Oklahoma: -1.3
  8. Montana: -1.2
  9. Alabama: -1.1
  10. Missouri: -1.1

Which states saw the biggest score deterioration on the ACT Reading?

Nevada saw the largest decrease in ACT Reading scores in the nation, with an average decline of -3.6 points across all of its students. This list is similar to the English list, with Nevada as an outlier and all states besides Washington having seen big increases in their ACT participation. 

The states that saw the biggest decrease in their composite ACT scores between 2013 and 2017 are:

  1. Nevada: -3.6
  2. South Carolina: -1.7 
  3. Wisconsin: -1.7
  4. Alabama: -1.3
  5. Alaska: -1.3
  6. Minnesota: -1.3
  7. Oklahoma: -1.3
  8. Washington: -1.2
  9. Missouri: -1.1
  10. Montana: -0.9

Which states saw the biggest score deterioration on the ACT Science?

Nevada had the largest decrease in its ACT Science scores in the country, with an average decline of -2.9 points – over twice the next worst decline of -1.4 points in South Carolina. Nevada had the largest decrease in its ACT scores across all four sections of the ACT.

The states that saw the biggest decrease in their composite ACT scores between 2013 and 2017 are:

  1. Nevada: -2.9
  2. South Carolina: -1.4
  3. Wisconsin: -1.3
  4. Minnesota: -1.3
  5. Oklahoma: -1.2
  6. Alaska: -1.1
  7. Missouri: -1.1
  8. Alabama: -0.8
  9. Montana: -0.7
  10. Arkansas: -0.6

Conclusions

Wow! That’s a lot of data. To make it easy to digest, let’s summarize the main conclusions here:

  • 32 states saw an increase in ACT participation, while only 9 saw a decrease. The remaining 9 were unchanged.
  • 17 states now require the ACT for all students, with only 2 states that previously required it opting out
  • Michigan saw the biggest increase in composite ACT scores with an average increase of 4.2 points. This is likely because it removed the ACT requirement for all of its students, so only those who wanted to take the ACT were taking it, reducing participation from 100% to 29%. 
  • The District of Columbia’s average ACT score increase of 3.8 is remarkable on its own, but unlike Michigan, it is especially compelling because they did not see a significant change in the number of ACT test takers.
  • 9 of the 10 states with the highest ACT composite scores are in the Northeast. Kudos to them for a strong emphasis on education.
  • Nevada was the lowest scoring state on the ACT with a composite score of 17.8, and the largest decrease in composite ACT score with a deterioration of 3.5 points – twice the next largest decrease. This was likely due to an opposite effect as the Michigan change: Nevada went from 32% of students taking the ACT to 100% (requiring it), which means even those who were not comfortable with the test now had to take it. Even so, the bad news is evident, as Nevada’s score deterioration was the highest across all four of the ACT sections, and was often more than twice as large as the next largest score decrease.
  • Overall, the states with the lowest composite ACT scores and the most negative change in ACT scores either started requiring it or saw huge increases in their ACT participation rate. This tells us that the initial impact of requiring everyone to take the ACT is that it will now include people who didn’t previously want to take the exam, so scores will go down in the short term. We’ll have to revisit this data once a new set is released to see if scores recovered in following years.

There’s a lot of data in this post, but whether you’re looking up your state to find out how it compares to others, or deciding where you want to move with a young family, we hope it was helpful. Follow our blog for more data-driven deep dives on the ACT exam and college admissions!

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