Perfect ACT Scores on the Rise

Walnut Hills High School, the top-ranked high school in Ohio (according to U.S. News and World Report) is home to seventeen very special students. Each one of them has earned a perfect 36 on the ACT, according to Cincinnati Public Schools. It’s unclear whether these scores were all on the same test, or whether any of these were super-scores. 

Walnut Hills is an outlier, but the number of perfect scores on the ACT has been steadily growing. Nebraska saw 44 perfect-scorers in its statewide 2019 graduating class, an increase of 100% from last year.

It’s true that more students are taking the test than in the past. In 2007, 1.4 million took the ACT; by 2017, that number was 2 million, an increase of almost 43%. That being said, the growth of perfect scores seems to be outpacing the growth of the test. A decade ago, perfect scores made up 0.038% of tests annually, which means one student out of 2,600 could expect a perfect score. These days, it’s more like 0.2%, or one in five hundred. That’s an increase of 500%.

The real question isn’t “why are there so many more high-scoring students?” There are a number of factors that might be contributing to the rise in perfect and near-perfect scores. Many students take both tests, due in no small part to statewide efforts for in-school testing. For example, every junior in Nevada sits for the ACT, regardless of whether they are college-bound or not (or already committed to preparing for the SAT). Students are also taking more advanced courses earlier; the best measure of student advancement is in participation in AP courses, which increased 78% from the 2007-2008 school year to the 2017-2018 school year. Finally, students have more widespread access to test prep, whether that means private tutoring, in-school classes, or the ACT’s online tools. The test has become a larger part of students’ lives, so it’s not surprising that we’re seeing more high-achieving students than we had before.

No, the real question is “what is the ACT going to do about it?” Individually, a perfect score is the jewel in the crown of a strong college application. Collectively, perfect scores are a dangerous thing. If a perfect score on the ACT becomes too accessible, the ACT will lose its value as a standardized assessment of college readiness. We’re already seeing the ACT gradually incorporate more challenging math and science content; it will be interesting to see how they plan to keep the perfect 36 the rare outcome it needs to be.


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