Mississippi high school juniors performed slightly better on the ACT as average scores for the graduating class continued to suffer this year, according to data released by state education officials. 

This indicates that pandemic-related learning loss continued to affect ACT scores last year, said Alan Burrow, the executive director of district and school performance at the Mississippi Department of Education, during a presentation at the board’s regular meeting on Thursday. 

“Although in the 11th grade report, we saw a little bit of a rebound after the pandemic, here in the graduating class, you still see most of these are down from the prior year,” Burrow said. “So I’d say a lingering impact of the pandemic.” 

The data also shows the vast majority of Mississippi high school juniors – 90.7% – did not meet college readiness benchmarks. Most juniors did not score high enough to qualify for the state’s most substantial college financial aid programs like the Higher Education Legislative Plan for Needy Students (HELP) or the Mississippi Eminent Scholars Grant (MESG). 

As of spring 2022, Mississippi high school juniors made an average composite score of 17.4 out of 36 on the ACT, up one decimal point from last school year, according to MDE. The graduating class, however, made a composite score of 17.8 this year, down from 18.1 in the 2020-21 school year. 

It’s unclear if the small gain that high school juniors made indicates that the state’s average ACT score will improve next year. In Mississippi, the test is administered to every high school junior. 

“The thing to point out is … these changes have been slight over the years,” Burrow said.

Nationally, average ACT scores have dropped to 19.8, the lowest level in three decades and the first time below an average score of 20 since 1991. Experts attribute this decline to the pandemic, but that’s not the full picture. Across the country, the average ACT score has been falling since 2018 as more students take the test. 

The ACT purports to measure a student’s preparation for college, though research has shown that scores are heavily correlated with income, not necessarily merit or ability. According to state education officials, Mississippi high schoolers who have access to more rigorous courses tend to score better on the ACT. 

Low ACT scores negatively affect students’ prospects of admission into college, along with their chances of receiving state financial aid. Many scholarships at Mississippi universities are based on grades and ACT scores. The state Office of Student Financial Aid offers three grants to help Mississippians pay for college, but each has an ACT component. 

To receive the HELP grant, the only state college aid program targeted at helping low-income Mississippians, a student must score a superscore of 20 or higher on the ACT. 

For high school seniors who need to improve their ACT scores, school districts offer specialized reading and math courses, according to an MDE press release. Seniors who earn a B- or higher in these classes can take college classes without remediation at in-state public universities and most community colleges. 

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Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today. She works in partnership with Open Campus, a nonprofit news organization focused on investigating higher education. Originally from Melbourne Beach, Florida, Molly reported on public housing and prosecutors in her home state and worked as a fact-checker at The Nation before joining Mississippi Today. Her story on Mississippi's only class on critical race theory was a finalist for the Education Writers Association National Awards for Education Reporting in 2023 in the feature reporting category.