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How to Compare High Schools Using Average ACT Scores

Posted by Dora Seigel | Dec 3, 2015 4:00:00 PM

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If you’ve found this guide, you're probably looking for a good high school, or you want to see how your high school measures up compared to others. When comparing high schools, a helpful metric is average ACT Score.

In this guide, I’ll tell you what average ACT score represents, why you should care about a school’s average ACT score, and where you can find information on average ACT scores by high school.


What Does a High School’s Average ACT Score Represent?

When thinking about what a high school’s average ACT score represents, you need to think about what the ACT measures in individual test-takers.

While you may think that an ACT score simply measures the test-taker’s academic ability, the ACT, in fact, measures not only academic ability but also perseverance. What I mean by perseverance is a student’s desire to work hard in school and in pursuit of higher education.

While a genius might be able to get 36 on the ACT with no prep, a test-taker with just slightly above-average intelligence can also get 36 with enough studying. Therefore, an ACT score reveals both a student’s academic ability and work ethic.

A high school’s average ACT score represents these same qualities: academic ability and desire to work hard. However, in terms of an entire high school, its “academic ability” depends on the quality of education, and its “desire to work hard” depends on the quality of students. Do the students at that school care about their education? Do they care about attending a 4-year university?


Why Should You Care About a High School’s Average ACT Score?

The reason you should care about a high school’s average ACT score is because higher ACT scores can indicate a better quality of education and a better quality of student at that school.

As I said before, the ACT measures your academic ability (to some degree). Your education is responsible for your academic ability, so the better the quality of education you receive, the better you’ll perform on the ACT.

However, as I also mentioned, your ACT score is also affected by how much you prepare for the ACT. If a high school’s average ACT score is high, the students at that school most likely care more about their education and getting into a 4-year university than students at high schools with lower average ACT scores.

Sending your kid to a high school with a higher average ACT score can help guarantee they’ll be surrounded by like-minded, hard working students and receive a higher quality of education.  




On the Other Hand, Why Shouldn’t You Rely Too Heavily On Average ACT Scores?

While a school’s average ACT score can suggest the quality of its education and students, it may not give you the complete picture.

Some public schools have magnet (or gifted) programs that are separated from the “regular” track at that high school. These programs often have a superior quality of students and teachers than the rest of the school.

I attended a public high school with an International Baccalaureate magnet program. The admissions requirements for this program were tough, but there were no requirements for students on the “regular” high school track. Also, the IB program had better teachers who only taught IB classes. I’d venture a guess that the average ACT score for IB students was higher than the average ACT score for students on the “regular” track. However, the average ACT score for my high school does not separate IB and non-IB students.

The average ACT score factors in the scores of all students at the school. As a result, you can’t figure out what the quality of education and students will be within a specific magnet program versus the quality of the “regular” track.

Also, as I said before, your ACT score is also affected by your study effort. Therefore, if you attend a high school with a low average ACT score, that does not necessarily mean that you will have a low ACT score. On the other hand, attending a school with a high average ACT score doesn't mean you'll automatically get a high ACT score either. No matter where you attend high school, you can practice, learn the test format and strategies, and receive a high score on the ACT.

However, you should still try to attend the high school with the best quality of students and teachers so that you’ll receive the best education you can, be challenged, and be well prepared for the ACT and college.


How to Find Average ACT Scores by School

There are four methods for finding a high school’s average ACT score:

  • Search the Department of Education website (NOTE: This only works for PUBLIC high schools.)
  • Search the school’s website (NOTE: not all schools publish this information on their websites)
  • Email a school administrator
  • Google Search “[High School Name] Average ACT Score” (NOTE: this can be unreliable)

The best method is to use the Department of Education’s website for your state. NOTE: this will only work for some states. For a full explanation of how to find a district’s or specific public high school’s average ACT score using this method (and for a list of states that don't provide the data), read our article on ACT Scores by High School and District (Coming Soon!). Using this method will ensure you’re getting up-to-date, correct, unbiased information.

For private high schools (or as another search option for public high schools), you can use the Google search method, look on the high school’s website, or send an email to an administrator at that high school. However, the websites and Google search can often have outdated information (i.e. ACT score averages from five years ago) or not post this information publicly.

Administrators may also give you outdated information if they haven’t seen the most recent statistics. Also, it may take them a while to respond to your request with their busy schedules or if they’re on a school holiday.



What Should You Look for in ACT Data?

In the ACT data, you should be looking at the average composite ACT score. The higher this number is, the better.

You can also look at the individual section scores (though some states may not publish this information). The Math section score may give you a sense of how strong or weak the school's math program is. The closer to 36 (the highest possible section score) the better. A high score most likely means a higher quality Math program. 

The Reading and Writing sections will give you a sense of the quality of English education at that school. Again, same as math, the closer to 36 (the highest possible section score) the better. A high score here most likely means a higher quality of English classes at that school. I would not read too much into the Science section score as the Science section does not rely on scientific knowledge but rather on reading graphs and charts.

In the spreadsheet, you can also determine the fraction of students who took the ACT at that high school. NOTE: some states only list the total number of ACT test-takers and don't include the overall school enrollment, and you will not be able to figure out the fraction of students who took the ACT if they don't provide both numbers.

If your state does provide you with total enrollment and the number of ACT test-takers such as California does, you can determine the fraction of students who took the ACT. For instance, here is a screenshot of the ACT data from the California Department of Education’s website:




To figure out the fraction of students who took the ACT at a specific high school, take the number of test takers (listed under the NumTstTakr column) and divide it by the number of enrolled students (under Enroll912).

If I was looking at Alameda Science and Technology Institute (the highlighted school), the fraction of students who took the ACT would be:

20 / 169 or about 12%

WARNING: don't read too much into the fraction or percent of students who took the ACT because these numbers don't give you the full picture.

The enrollment counts the TOTAL number of students, and you wouldn’t expect freshmen or sophomores to have taken the ACT yet. While 12% seems small, you need to factor in that:

  • Alameda Science and Technology Institute has about 50 students per grade level.
  • Typically, only juniors and seniors will take the ACT in a given year, and there are about 100 juniors and seniors at Alameda.
  • Some students may opt to take the SAT instead (which in fact about 60 did).

When accounting for all that, it appears that close to 100% of Alameda Science and Technology Institute students will take either SAT or ACT. 



A high school's average ACT score shows the quality of education and caliber of students at that school. NOTE: average ACT score may not give you a full picture of certain schools. At high schools with magnet programs, magnet students' ACT scores are combined with the "regular" students' ACT scores to create the school's average ACT score. Although magnet students likely have a higher average ACT score (since they're likely receiving a higher quality education and are likely more studious), you wouldn't be able to see that from the overall average ACT score of that school.  

There are different methods for locating a high school's average ACT score. Not all methods will work in all states or for all high schools. Check out our other guide on ACT Scores by High School and District (coming soon!) to find the best method for you. When you find the average ACT score data for the school you're interested in, you should look for the composite ACT score. The higher the score, the better that school likely is. 


What’s Next?

Learn more about the ACT and the college application process:


Want to improve your ACT score by 4+ points? Download our free guide to the top 5 strategies you need in your prep to improve your ACT score dramatically.

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Dora Seigel
About the Author

As an SAT/ACT tutor, Dora has guided many students to test prep success. She loves watching students succeed and is committed to helping you get there. Dora received a full-tuition merit based scholarship to University of Southern California. She graduated magna cum laude and scored in the 99th percentile on the ACT. She is also passionate about acting, writing, and photography.

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