Underserved Learners Lag Far Behind Peers in College & Career Readiness According to 2017 ACT Score Results

IOWA CITY, Iowa—Underserved students lag far behind their peers when it comes to college and career readiness, and the more underserved characteristics that students possess, the less likely they are to be ready. These findings are reported in The Condition of College & Career Readiness 2017, ACT’s annual score report, which was released today.

Underserved students, who represent nearly half (46 percent) of ACT-tested 2017 U.S. high school graduates, are defined as students who would be the first generation in their family to attend college, come from low-income families and/or self-identify their race/ethnicity as minority. Research suggests students with any of these three characteristics are less likely than others to have access to high-quality educational and career planning opportunities and resources.

Only 9 percent of ACT-tested graduates who possessed all three underserved characteristics showed strong readiness for college coursework, meeting three or four of the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks (English, mathematics, reading and science). Even among students who met only one of the underserved criteria, just 26 percent showed strong readiness. In comparison, the majority (54 percent) of graduates who were not underserved showed strong readiness for college.

Conversely, the majority of underserved students—including 81 percent of those with all three underserved characteristics—achieved only one or none of the four ACT benchmarks. Those students are likely to struggle in college-level coursework.

“While it’s no surprise that underserved students fall behind their peers due to the inequities that exist, it is extremely alarming and concerning to see how large this achievement gap really is,” said ACT Chief Executive Officer Marten Roorda. “This gap presents a major risk to our nation’s goals for postsecondary completion and economic competitiveness. We must work harder to ensure these students have access to quality coursework and information to assist them in planning for the future. We launched the ACT Center for Equity in Learning last year to help do just that.”

The results are based on the more than 2 million 2017 graduates—60 percent of the national graduating class—who took the ACT® test.

Overall Readiness Levels Remain Steady

Readiness levels have remained fairly steady over the past several years among ACT-tested graduates overall.

Thirty-nine percent of the 2017 graduates met three or four of the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks, up from 38 percent in 2016, but down from 40 percent the year before.

The proportion of graduates showing virtually no readiness for college coursework remained sizable. Among 2017 graduates, 33 percent met none of the four ACT College Readiness Benchmarks, suggesting they are likely to struggle in first-year college coursework in all four core subject areas. That compares to 34 percent last year and 31 percent in each of the three previous years.

“What our education system is doing now is not working well enough for far too many of the country’s young people,” said Roorda. “ACT has invested significant money and resources to explore innovative ways to improve learning and assessment. Our goal is to positively impact student outcomes, not only in terms of their academic skills but also in terms of their social and emotional learning skills. ACT urges schools, districts and states to take a holistic approach to college and career readiness.”

Other Findings

The following are among the other key findings in this year’s ACT report:


  • The national average ACT composite score for the 2017 graduating class rose to 21.0 on a 1 to 36 scale, returning to 2014 and 2015 levels after dropping to 20.8 last year.
  • Since 2013, the percentage of ACT-tested graduates who met or surpassed the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks has increased in reading, stayed relatively steady in science, and declined in both English and mathematics.
  • Two in 10 graduates (21%) met or surpassed the ACT STEM Benchmark, which represents readiness for first-year courses typically required for a STEM major.

Greater Diversity

  • The number and percent of Hispanic students taking the ACT continued to rise in 2017, adding to the diversity and representativeness of the tested population. Average scores and readiness levels among Hispanic students improved slightly this year even as their numbers increased.
  • Nevertheless, Hispanic and African American students continue to lag behind their white and Asian American counterparts in terms of academic achievement and college readiness.
  • During the 2016-2017 academic year, more than 650,000 fee waivers were awarded to prospective ACT examinees. Unfortunately, more than one-fourth (28%) of those fee waivers were not used, suggesting that over 180,000 eligible students missed out on an opportunity to take the ACT for free—and their eligibility for free access to ACT test prep resources—during the past year alone.

Popular Majors, Career Preparedness

  • Health sciences and technologies continues to be the most popular college major choice among ACT-tested U.S. high school graduates, beating the next highest named major (business) by a nearly two-to-one margin.
  • Only 4 percent of graduates (80,873 students) expressed interest in an education major, unchanged from last year, suggesting that more needs to be done to positively impact the education pipeline.
  • Fewer than three in 10 graduates were likely, based on their ACT composite score, to attain an ACT WorkKeys® National Career Readiness Certificate® (NCRC®) at the gold level or higher, which represents the foundational work readiness skills needed for 93 percent of the jobs recently profiled in the ACT JobPro® database.

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 four 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.

NOTE: National and state ACT Condition of College & Career Readiness 2017 reports are available on the ACT website at: www.act.org/condition2017

For district- or school-specific score results, please contact the local district/district office or your state department of education. ACT releases only national and state reports.

About the ACT

The ACT is a curriculum-based achievement test that measures the skills taught in schools and deemed important for success in first-year college courses. The content of the ACT is informed by results of the ACT National Curriculum Survey®, conducted every three to four years among thousands of elementary, middle and high school teachers and instructors of first-year college courses across the United States. The data obtained in the survey allow ACT to ensure that its assessments measure the skills most important for success after high school.

ACT research shows that students who meet the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks are more likely to persist in college and earn a degree than those who don’t. The benchmarks specify the minimum score students must earn on each of the four ACT subject tests to have about a 75 percent chance of earning a grade of C or higher and a 50 percent chance of earning a B or higher in a typical credit-bearing first-year college course in that subject area.

The ACT Center for Equity in Learning is dedicated to helping underserved learners and working learners achieve education and career success. Through purposeful investments, employee engagement and thoughtful advocacy efforts, the Center supports research, innovative partnerships, initiatives, campaigns and programs that work to close gaps in equity and achievement and help young people succeed in education and the workplace.

ACT is a mission-driven, nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people achieve education and workplace success. Headquartered in Iowa City, Iowa, ACT is trusted as a national leader in college and career readiness, providing high-quality assessments grounded in nearly 60 years of research. ACT offers a uniquely integrated set of solutions designed to provide personalized insights that help individuals succeed from elementary school through career.