Are smartphones the culprits behind the lowest ACT scores in three decades?
In a disconcerting revelation, the high school class of 2022 in the United States has recorded the lowest average ACT scores in over three decades, signaling a worrisome trend in our education system. The composite score, a vital measure used for college admissions, dropped to 19.8, compared to the previous year’s average of 20.3. Startlingly, this is the first time since 1991 that the national average composite score has dipped below the critical threshold of 20. The data, released by the nonprofit organization responsible for administering the ACT exam, paints a disheartening picture of academic readiness among graduating seniors.
In the midst of this educational crisis, it is essential to recognize the complex role that technology, specifically smartphones and social media, plays in the lives of today’s teenagers.
There is a growing concern about the link between teen phone use and low ACT scores, as evidenced by the recent data. One possible explanation for this correlation is the excessive screen time and social media usage among teenagers. The widespread use of smartphones and social media platforms has significantly changed the way young people interact and spend their time. Instead of engaging in activities associated with academic preparation, such as studying, reading, or participating in extracurricular activities, teens may be spending more time on their phones, which could negatively impact their academic performance.
Renowned psychologist Jean Twenge sheds light on the profound behavioral changes witnessed in Gen Z, or iGen, the generation growing up in an era fundamentally distinct from previous ones. The advent of smartphones coincided with drastic shifts in behavior, particularly in areas such as mental health, optimism, and expectations. Twelfth-grade students today exhibit behaviors akin to those of eighth-graders in earlier generations. They increasingly shy away from activities associated with independence and adulthood, opting instead for endless scrolling through social media feeds. While this may provide physical safety, the long-term effects on mental and brain health remain a pressing concern.
However, it is important to note that the relationship between teen phone use and low ACT scores is complex and influenced by various factors. The decline in ACT scores cannot be solely attributed to phone use, as it is likely impacted by a combination of systemic failures in education, socioeconomic factors, and other societal influences. But we think it likely, especially given the isolation of the pandemic where social life was conducted almost exclusively online.
The statistics reveal an even more troubling reality when it comes to meeting the benchmarks in all four main ACT test sections: English, math, reading, and science. A mere 22% of students from the class of 2022 managed to achieve proficiency in all sections, while a staggering 42% failed to meet any of the benchmarks. These benchmarks serve as minimum scores required for students to have a higher probability of success in credit-bearing college courses. Comparatively, the previous year saw 25% of students meeting all four benchmarks, with 38% of students failing to meet any.
The data highlights deeply rooted systemic failures that have plagued our educational institutions even prior to the global crisis. Merely reverting to the pre-pandemic status quo would be insufficient and a disservice to both students and educators alike. It is imperative that we acknowledge these systemic shortcomings and embark on a sustained collective effort to prioritize the academic recovery of high school students as a national priority.
Notably, the rise in the number of students taking the ACT is an encouraging development. Since 2015, there has been a consistent increase in participation rates, with 60% of the class of 2022 opting to take the test. This upward trend is facilitated by programs that enable lower-income students to access the ACT, ensuring a more inclusive and equitable evaluation process.
The release of the ACT score results encompassed data from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Sixteen states mandated ACT testing for all high school students, while an additional seven states offered optional funding for the exam. The College Board, responsible for the SAT, another widely used college admissions test, also noted a slight decline in scores for the class of 2022. These findings underscore the need for a comprehensive examination of our education system and its ability to adequately prepare students for higher education.