Given that their purpose is to prepare graduating students for college (or a career), the best high schools should also have the highest ACT scores. With that in mind, what can we say about the over 100,000 students who make up North Carolina’s graduating Class of 2020? Only half of them show signs of readiness for college, there is a wide racial achievement gap, and student success seems to be tied closely to their family’s economic status.
(Top image caption—the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics had some of the highest average 2020 ACT scores)
Since the 2012-2013 school year, North Carolina has administered the ACT to all high school juniors; this requirement means that the state’s data is remarkably complete. In 2020, it was one of 15 states where an estimated 100% of graduates took the ACT. Among these, it scored fourth-lowest, ahead of only Louisiana (18.7), Oklahoma (18.7), Mississippi (18.2), and Nevada (17.9). (Of the states with 100% participation, Utah had the highest average score—20.2.)
In general, states with higher testing levels tend to have lower average scores. (They include results from students whose future plans may not include college-level coursework, for instance.) In states where standardized testing like the ACT is optional, test-takers are primarily a self-selecting, academically advanced cohort, which is reflected in their test scores. Consider, for example, Massachusetts, which had 2020’s highest average ACT scores in the nation (26.0), but administered tests to only 18% of graduates.
ACT College Readiness Benchmarks
The ACT’s “College Readiness Benchmarks” are the scores (out of 36) on the subject area tests that indicate a student’s chances of college success. The ACT believes that meeting the benchmarks for English, Reading, Mathematics, and Science gives a student a 50% chance of earning a B or higher or a 75% chance of getting a C or higher in a corresponding freshman-level college course. Unchanged since 2013, these benchmark scores and their college course equivalents are:
English (English Composition) – 18
Reading (Social Sciences) – 22
Math (College Algebra) – 22
Science (Biology) – 23
Since 2015, the ACT has also offered a College Readiness Benchmark for coursework in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), based on scores on the Math & Science subject area tests. Because college-level STEM coursework tends to be more academically challenging (for instance, many STEM freshmen begin with Calculus instead of Algebra), ACT has determined that the benchmark ACT score is significantly higher for STEM than in other subject areas. Meeting the STEM benchmark indicates a 50% chance of earning a B or higher in identified college-level STEM courses. The benchmark score is:
Math & Science (STEM) – 26
Half of North Carolina’s Juniors are Not College-Ready
North Carolina’s Class of 2020 noticeably trails the national average for students meeting ACT College Readiness Benchmarks (CRBs) in all subject areas. Of the tested subjects, English is the area in which North Carolina students are most college-ready, but even there, only 43% of graduates met the CRB. About one third of students (35%) met the Reading benchmark, and just over a fourth are college-ready in Math (28%) and Science (27%).
2020’s results continue a 5-year trend of gradually decreasing college-readiness among North Carolina seniors. Just over 50% of graduates failed to meet college benchmarks in all subject areas, up over 1.5% from 2019 and up nearly 4% from five years ago. Interestingly, the number of students who show college-readiness in all four subject areas has held steady (at around 18%) over the same period, suggesting that there is a widening achievement gap rather than just an overall worsening of scores.
Although the big picture suggests bad news, a closer analysis reveals the truth is more mixed. While North Carolina students show a concerning decline in English and Math college-readiness (down 2% and 2.8%, respectively), they actually improved their showing in Reading and Science. The percent of seniors meeting the Reading and Science CRBs rose 1.1% and 1.2%, respectively.
North Carolina’s Racial Achievement Gap
Sadly, one of the biggest indicators of ACT success is one over which students have no control: their racial background. Nationally, Asian Americans have the highest rates of success, followed by white students. Students who identify as Black or African American score the lowest, just behind students with American Indian heritage. (Students who identify as either Hispanic or Pacific Islander score somewhere in the middle.)
North Carolina’s 2020 results generally follow these nationwide trends. While 54% of Asian students and 38% of white students met three or more College Readiness Benchmarks, only 8% of Black graduates and 15% of Latinos did so. As shown in the chart below, this racial achievement gap is not a new development, but rather the continuation of a years-long trend.
The continuing underperformance by Black and Latino students is particularly concerning because both groups make up a significant percentage of North Carolina’s senior class. (Black students comprise 20% of the class and Latino students account for 16%; the largest group, white students, makes up just under 50%.) In other words, to close the achievement gap between white, Black, and Latino graduates, North Carolina would need to improve the scores of around 6,400 Black students and 4,000 Latino students.
Economic Status Affects Students’ ACT Success
In addition to a student’s race, their economic status is often closely related to their ACT performance. Nationwide, the achievement gap between students whose family income is less than $36,000 a year (classified as “low income”) and those whose family income exceeds that amount is very wide: when comparing students who meet 3 or more CRBs, over 20 percentage points separate the two groups. In North Carolina this gap is much smaller—only 6 percentage points—but that’s due at least in part to lower levels of ACT achievement across the board.
A more detailed breakdown of North Carolina’s results, though, reveals a strong correlation between a student’s family wealth and their ACT scores. As the chart below shows, the higher a student’s family income, the more likely they are to meet three or more CRBs. To compare the extremes, nearly three-fourths (72%) of students whose families make more than $150,000 a year met a majority of CRBs, while only 18% of those in the lowest income bracket did so.
How to Improve ACT Scores
Luckily for students looking to increase their chances of ACT success, there are several actions they can take which are statistically likely to improve their scores.
Focus on schoolwork and take academically challenging classes. Students who do better in school nearly always do better overall on standardized tests like the ACT. For instance, 2020 North Carolina graduates who took Biology, Chemistry, and Physics scored an average of 8.5 points better on the Science ACT than those who had taken less than three years of Natural Science.
Take the ACT more than once. There is a clear statistical advantage to retesting; in 2020, the average composite score of North Carolina students who took the ACT two or more times was 24.5, 6.7 points higher than the average composite score (17.8) of those who took the test only once. Students worried about the cost of retesting should consider ACT’s fee waiver program, which allows eligible students to test for free.
Spend time studying and preparing specifically for the ACT. Taking practice tests helps students familiarize themselves with the content and the format of the test and gives them specific feedback. In addition, working with a tutor can be an effective way of improving a student’s weakest areas and developing test-taking strategies. Piqosity offers a full suite of free ACT Practice materials and analyses of previously-released ACT tests, perfect for students wondering how to improve their ACT scores.
North Carolina’s Colleges are Accessible and Affordable
Nearly 77% of North Carolina’s 2020 Senior Class did not indicate their post-secondary educational plans; of the students who did provide an indication, over 90% aspire to a minimum of a four-year bachelor’s degree.
If these college-bound students are anything like their peers in previous years, a majority likely want to remain within the borders of their home state. Seniors in 2019, for instance, sent 63% of their ACT score reports to public in-state colleges; their top five selections were:
(For reference: in 2020, 45% of North Carolina graduates earned an ACT composite score of 19 or above.)
What’s more, North Carolina colleges are well within the financial reach of many students—at all five schools listed above, in-state tuition is less than $10,000!
Best High Schools in North Carolina by ACT Scores
The table below presents 2020 ACT Scores from 598 North Carolina high schools for which full data was available. Explore the original data from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction here. (Two schools each tied for 1st and 7th place. See subject scores breakdown and number tested for further delineation.)
Top 10 North Carolina High Schools by 2020 Average ACT Scores (composite)
Evan holds a Master of Music from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and a Bachelor of Music from the Eastman School of Music. He was a National Merit Scholar. He is the Principal Flutist of the Pacific Northwest Ballet Orchestra.