California’s students beat the national average on the ACT, but huge gaps remain

Preparing for a test
Technology coordinator Michael Sinclair talks as 11th-graders at Francisco Bravo Senior High Medical Magnet School take a practice exam for new state standardized tests. Students across California outperformed their peers on the ACT, another exam.
(Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

California’s graduating class of 2016 outperformed peers on the ACT college-entrance test nationally across all four subject areas, according to a report released by the test company Wednesday.

Nationwide, students had an average overall score of 20.8 out of 36 on the test of English, math, reading and science. California students, on average, earned 22.6.

Of the 127,225 California class of 2016 students who took the test, 37% passed benchmarks in all four subjects. 

The scores, which come amid a national effort to help more students from disadvantaged backgrounds access college, show that large gaps between ethnic groups remain.


Seventy-one percent of California’s white class of 2016 students met three or more benchmarks, compared with 24% of black students, 28% of Latino students, 45% of Pacific Islander students, 41% of American Indian students and 69% of Asian American students.

Overall, the state’s Latino and black students were “much more likely” to wait until their senior year to take the test. They also were more likely to take the test only once, thus limiting their chances to improve their scores, the study found. 

The pool of students who took the ACT isn’t necessarily reflective of all California high school students. The ACT is taken by those preparing to go to college. Many universities require applying students to take either the ACT or the SAT, but more California students take the SAT. 

Still, the ACT has increased its market share in California to 32.5% in 2016 from 25% in 2012. Nationally, 64% of all 2016 high school graduates — about 2.1 million — took the test.


Performance dropped nationwide, but the ACT chalked up the decline to the higher numbers of younger students taking the test. Seven more states began testing all their 11th-graders last year.

The study also noted some trends among California test takers. Only 3% said they wanted to study, or pursue a career in, education — and those who did earned a lower average score than their peers. Eleven percent said they wanted to work in business. 

You can reach Joy Resmovits on Twitter @Joy_Resmovits and by email at

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