In the 2023 graduating class, 97,770 North Carolina students took the ACT. The Early College at Guilford had the highest average composite ACT score of 31.4, putting it in the 95th percentile rank of the nation’s ACT scores. Additionally, Wake STEM Early College High School, Nesbitt Discovery Academy, and Raleigh Charter High School all made it in the 85th percentile rank with average composite scores above 27. Finally, Providence High School outside of Charlotte stands out as the state’s top performing general enrollment high school.
The mean composite score for North Carolina’s class of 2023 was 18.5 out of a possible 36, putting the state’s average score just shy of the 50th percentile rank. For comparison, 2019’s graduating class had about 2,000 more students and scored higher, with a mean composite of 19.0, and the class of 2020 had a composite score of 18.8. Nationally, the average composite score was a 19.8 (down from 2019’s mean composite of 20.7).
Top image caption—the Early College at Guilford is the best North Carolina high school, based on average composite ACT scores.
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 nearly 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.
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 past years. However, in 2022, it administered the exam to only 88% of students (down from 92% in 2021). “The best practice is to compare states where the same or similar percentages of graduates were tested,” as said by ACT; as such, it was one of seven states that administered the test to between 85% and 95% of students. Among these, North Carolina scored second-to-last (18.5), between Oklahoma (17.9) and Arkansas (18.8). At the top of this range of states are Utah (19.9), Nebraska (19.4) and Wisconsin (19.4).
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.
What is a Good ACT Score in North Carolina? — 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 Graduates are Not College-Ready
North Carolina’s Class of 2022 noticeably trailed the national average for students meeting ACT College Readiness Benchmarks (CRBs) in all subject areas, and the Class of 2023 performed similarly. Of the tested subjects, English is the area in which North Carolina students are most college-ready, but even there, only 39% of graduates met the CRB. About one third of students (34%) met the Reading benchmark, and just under a fourth are college-ready in Math (24%) and Science (26%).
2023’s results continue a 6-year trend of gradually decreasing college-readiness among North Carolina seniors. 42% of graduates failed to meet college benchmarks in all subject areas in 2022. Interestingly, the number of students who show college-readiness in all four subject areas has had a slower decline since 2020 (at 26% in 2021 and 22% in 2022, for instance), suggesting that there is a widening achievement gap rather than just an overall worsening of scores.
Although the big picture suggests terrible 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 4% and 2% from 2020 to 2022, respectively), they have about the same readiness for Reading and Science (between 2020-22, the percent of NC seniors meeting the Reading and Science CRB stayed at about 35% and 25%, respectively).
North Carolina’s Racial Achievement Gap Among Graduating Seniors
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 2020 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, even according to ACT; 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
In 2020, 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% aspired 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. The 5 public colleges in North Carolina with the highest enrollment are:
- North Carolina State University
- University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
- University of North Carolina, Charlotte
- East Carolina University
- Appalachian State University
Admission to some of these schools is a fairly attainable goal—schools in the University of North Carolina system will fully consider any applicant who has earned:
- a GPA of at least 2.5, or
- an ACT Composite Score of 19
(For reference: in 2023, 42% of North Carolina seniors 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 2022 ACT Scores from more than 700 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 6th place. See subject scores breakdown and number tested for further delineation, and the original spreadsheet is available on the website for NC’s DPI.)
Top 10 North Carolina High Schools by 2020 Average ACT Scores (composite)
- Early College at Guilford (31.4)
- Wake STEM Early College High School (27.8)
- Nesbitt Discovery Academy (27.3)
- Raleigh Charter High School (27.1)
- Onslow Early College (26.4)
- STEM Early College at NC A&T State University (25.8); Jackson Co Early College (25.8)
- Woods Charter School (26.5)
- Research Triangle High School (24.9)
- Haywood Early College (24.8)
- Providence High School (24.5)
How to Read This Sortable Table
- The default sort is by composite score from highest to lowest; to change the sorting order, click on the header by which you want to sort.
- “Avg Score” is the composite ACT score from 0 to 36.
- “English, Reading, Math, Science” refers to the school’s average scores in each subject test from 0 to 36.
- “# Tested” is the number of students who sat for the exam at each school.
North Carolina ACT Scores 2023
|wdt_ID||School||School District||Avg Score||English||Reading||Math||Science||# Tested|
|1||ABSS Early College at ACC||Alamance-Burlington Schools||23.70||22.60||25.00||22.90||23.80||51|
|2||Eastern Alamance High||Alamance-Burlington Schools||17.60||15.30||18.00||18.10||18.40||256|
|3||Graham High||Alamance-Burlington Schools||14.60||12.10||15.00||15.50||15.30||164|
|4||Hugh M Cummings High||Alamance-Burlington Schools||14.10||11.50||14.30||15.00||15.10||166|
|5||Southern Alamance High||Alamance-Burlington Schools||17.00||14.80||17.50||17.30||17.80||275|
|6||Walter M Williams High||Alamance-Burlington Schools||17.70||16.10||18.30||17.40||18.20||246|
|7||Western Alamance High||Alamance-Burlington Schools||17.10||15.00||17.80||17.60||17.60||220|
|8||Alamance Virtual School||Alamance-Burlington Schools||16.20||14.40||17.00||16.00||16.90||33|
|9||Alexander Central High||Alexander County Schools||17.00||15.20||17.60||17.10||17.70||294|
|10||Alexander Early College||Alexander County Schools||21.50||20.90||21.80||20.30||22.30||38|
|11||Alleghany High||Alleghany County Schools||17.30||15.60||17.90||17.50||17.80||94|
|12||Anson Co. Early College High||Anson County Schools||17.00||15.60||17.70||16.60||17.80||60|
|13||Anson High School||Anson County Schools||13.40||11.50||13.80||14.10||13.80||119|
|14||Ashe County High||Ashe County Schools||17.20||15.60||17.70||17.10||17.80||158|
|15||Ashe County Early College High||Ashe County Schools||21.30||19.50||23.80||20.00||21.40||33|
|16||Avery County High||Avery County Schools||17.70||15.40||18.80||17.30||18.80||117|
|17||Beaufort Co Early College High||Beaufort County Schools||21.60||19.20||23.00||21.70||22.10||51|
|18||Northside High||Beaufort County Schools||17.70||15.80||18.20||18.00||18.40||82|
|19||Southside High||Beaufort County Schools||17.20||15.10||17.20||17.50||18.20||94|
|20||Washington High||Beaufort County Schools||15.40||13.20||15.80||15.70||16.40||154|
|21||Bertie Early College High||Bertie County Schools||18.40||17.10||19.40||18.30||18.10||42|
|22||Bertie High||Bertie County Schools||13.50||10.90||13.60||14.20||14.20||66|
|23||East Bladen High||Bladen County Schools||15.00||12.40||15.30||15.50||15.80||102|
|24||West Bladen High||Bladen County Schools||16.10||14.20||17.20||16.00||16.70||173|
|25||Bladen Early College||Bladen County Schools||18.50||16.50||20.80||17.20||19.40||31|
|School||School District||Avg Score||English||Reading||Math||Science||# Tested|
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For the full datasets referenced in this article:
- Average ACT Scores by State Graduating Class of 2022
- ACT Database for US ACT Score Trends in the Class of 2022
- 2022 ACT Scores for North Carolina High Schools
More Educational Resources from Piqosity:
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