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As online college and other alternative higher ed options have grown in popularity, standardized testing has become less important at the college level, with many colleges going test-optional. But high school students across the U.S. still take the SAT and ACT® to prep for college admissions.
At the K-12 level, standardized testing remains a vital metric for measuring students’ comprehension and competency in core subject areas like math, reading, writing and science. Standardized test scores provide primary and secondary school teachers and administrators with data-driven insights that inform curriculum development and shape educational policies and practices. These scores can also impact a school’s funding and resource allocation.
In this article, we rank the states with the highest standardized test scores and discuss the evolving role of standardized testing, including K-12 assessments and college entrance exams.
Why Does Standardized Testing Matter in the U.S.?
Standardized testing assesses the academic performance of students, teachers and schools. Test scores offer a quantitative metric to determine whether schools meet established standards and help educators and policymakers identify areas for improvement.
K-12 Standardized Assessments
At the K-12 level, standardized testing evaluates students’ proficiency in core subject areas at their respective grade levels. Test scores offer insights into the factors affecting a student’s, school’s or state’s performance. They can also inform instructional strategies and shape curriculum development.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is a comprehensive assessment encompassing print and digital assessments across multiple subject areas, including math, studying and science. NAEP is usually administered at the state and district levels among fourth and eighth grades. On this page, we use fourth- and eighth-grade math and studying assessments to determine our rankings.
K-12 standardized testing often faces criticism for its testing practices. Teachers, administrators and parents argue that standardized testing doesn’t account for each student’s unique learning style and strengths, instead testing students using a one-size-fits-all approach. Some say the education system’s focus on standardized testing has narrowed the scope and focus of curriculums to accommodate test results.
This criticism drives an ongoing dialogue about the need for more holistic and inclusive testing and assessment practices. Teachers, administrators and curriculum developers continue to propose alternative assessment methods—such as performance tasks, project-based work and portfolios—to better capture the multifaceted nature of student learning.
College Entrance Exams
During their third and fourth years of high school, students often take college entrance exams ahead of submitting their applications for admission. These test scores measure learners’ academic readiness for higher education. Colleges and universities use standardized tests to inform their admissions decisions.
Colleges and universities also consider several other factors during the admissions process, such as academic performance, extracurricular activities, personal statements and letters of recommendation. Also, many colleges have adopted test-optional admissions policies, which lift entrance test requirements for first-year applicants.
Though test-optional colleges do not require the ACT or SAT for college admission, most still consider entrance test scores when applicants choose to submit them.
Our ranking looks at metrics from the following standardized tests.
- SAT: The SAT is a multiple-choice test that covers math, evidence-based studying and writing. Each section of the SAT is scored on a 200- to 800-point scale, making 1600 the highest possible score.
- ACT: The ACT evaluates students’ knowledge in four areas: English, reading, mathematics and science. There’s also an optional writing section, which does not affect the composite ACT score. Your composite score comprises the average of the four subject scores, rounded to the nearest whole number. Possible ACT scores range from one to 36.
- MCAT: All medical school programs in the U.S. use the MCAT for medical school admissions. This computer-based, multiple-choice test evaluates critical thinking, problem-solving, and knowledge of behavioral, natural and social science concepts and principles.
States With the Best Test Scores
Below we rank each U.S. state based on its standardized testing performances. Our methodology uses data from K-12 assessments, focusing on fourth- and eighth-grade math and studying assessments and college entrance test performances.
Top Five States
The top five states in our standardized testing performance ranking are:
- New Jersey
- New Hampshire
Common factors contributing to these states’ strong performances include rigorous academic standards, adequate funding, student-to-teacher ratios, professional development and successful education policies and reforms.
Massachusetts consistently ranks among the states with the highest standardized test scores in the U.S. and secured the top spot on our list. At the fourth grade level, 42.9% of students demonstrated proficiency or higher in math; 42.61% achieved the same in reading.
In the eighth grade, Massachusetts students maintained their position as top performers among students nationwide, with 35.06% demonstrating proficiency or higher in math and 39.8% achieving the same in reading. While Massachusetts students received slightly lower average SAT scores than students in some other states, they earned the nation’s highest average ACT and MCAT scores.
Utah ranked second on our list, with 42.9% of NAEP test takers demonstrating proficiency or higher in math and 36.83% achieving the same in reading. Utah students received the highest average SAT score in the nation, with average ACT and MCAT scores trailing just below Massachusetts.
New Jersey placed third in our ranking, with 39.42% of fourth graders performing at or above proficiency in math and 38.02% at or above proficient in reading. New Jersey scored higher average ACT scores than Utah, and its average SAT and MCAT scores ranked just below Massachusetts and Utah.
New Hampshire’s standardized testing performance ranked fourth, with 39.96% of fourth graders demonstrating proficiency or higher in math and 37.02% achieving the same in reading. These rates dropped slightly through the eighth grade. New Hampshire had the highest average MCAT scores of any U.S. state.
Connecticut claimed the fifth spot in our ranking, where 37.01% of fourth graders demonstrated proficiency or higher in math, and 34.62% showcased the same in reading. Connecticut students maintained their overall performances through eighth grade, though math levels dropped by 7.06%. Connecticut’s average ACT and MCAT scores were on par with those of Massachusetts.
Bottom Five States
Mississippi, Alabama, West Virginia, New Mexico and Oklahoma ranked in the bottom five states for standardized test scores.
Various educational, economic and social factors influence these scores. For example, states with lower socioeconomic status may face challenges such as resource allocation to education or limited resources.
Mississippi ranked fifth-lowest in our ranking, with 32.07% of fourth graders demonstrating proficiency or above in math and 30.64% performing the same in reading. This trend continues through the eighth grade, with the percentages of students performing at this level declining to 17.75% in math and 21.98% in reading.
Alabama ranked fourth-lowest on our list, with 27.17% of fourth graders demonstrating proficiency or above in math and 28.26% demonstrating the same in reading. These performance levels persisted through the eighth grade, dropping by 8.48% in math and 6.23% in reading. Notably, Alabama students earned higher average ACT and MCAT scores compared to Mississippi; however, their average SAT scores were lower.
West Virginia placed third from the bottom, with 22.84% of fourth graders demonstrating proficiency or above in math and 22.28% achieving the same in reading. The percentage of students performing at this level dropped slightly through the eighth grade to 15.09% in math and 21.66% in reading.
West Virginia students saw lower average SAT scores than learners in Mississippi and Alabama; however, their average ACT and MCAT scores kept up.
New Mexico ranked second-to-last in terms of standardized testing performance, with just 19.12% of fourth graders demonstrating proficiency or higher in studying and 20.97% achieving the same in reading. Performance rates through the eighth grade dropped by 6.43% in math and 2.54% in reading. Students in New Mexico received the lowest average SAT scores of any state. However, their average ACT and MCAT scores were comparable to students in Mississippi, Alabama and West Virginia.
Oklahoma placed at the bottom of our ranking, with 26.83% of fourth graders demonstrating proficiency or higher in math, and 24.02% performing the same in reading. NAEP performances declined through the eighth grade, falling by 5.55% and 2.74% in math and reading, respectively.
The Bottom Line
Massachusetts, Utah, New Jersey, New Hampshire and Connecticut lead the nation in standardized testing performance. Overall, students in these states maintained strong NAEP performance levels through the eighth grade, with only minimal changes in studying and math performances.
Comparatively, the bottom five states—Mississippi, Alabama, West Virginia, New Mexico and Oklahoma—experience a sharper decline in proficiency levels from fourth to eighth grade.
These contrasting performances highlight how various factors may impact standardized testing outcomes at various grade levels, emphasizing the importance of addressing educational disparities.
To determine the states with the best test scores, Forbes Advisor Education obtained data on test performance at the elementary, middle, high school and college levels.
At the elementary level, we analyzed the percentage of fourth-grade students who scored at or above grade-appropriate proficiency in the math and studying sections of NAEP, according to government data from The Nation’s Report Card. We conducted an identical analysis of eighth-grade student scores.
To measure high school standardized test performance, we looked at the average ACT and SAT scores among test takers who graduated from high school in 2023. This data came from ACT and the College Board, respectively.
Finally, to measure how a state’s college-educated test takers compare, we used the average MCAT scores of medical students expected to earn their MD in 2023–24, separated according to students’ states of legal residence. This data came from the Association of American Medical Colleges.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Standardized Testing
What is meant by a standardized test?
A standardized test is an assessment that’s administered and scored in a consistent and uniform manner across a broad population. Standardized tests are designed to measure students’ comprehension and competency in specific subject areas, evaluate overall academic performance and inform educational policies.
What are the problems with standardized testing?
Standardized testing often faces criticism from teachers, administrators and parents. Some argue that the one-size-fits-all approach overlooks students’ diverse learning styles and strengths. Moreover, some say standardized testing includes biases that can influence schools’ curriculums and funding allocations.
What are the pros and cons of standardized testing?
In primary schools, standardized testing offers a quantitative assessment of academic performance, theoretically removing subjective biases that come from individual instructors and district-specific assessments. Some say standardized testing favors certain learning styles and socioeconomic backgrounds and stifles creativity.
Is the SAT a standardized test?
The SAT is a standardized college entrance test usually taken during the junior or senior year of high school. Many colleges and universities use SAT scores during admissions; however, schools commonly adopt test-optional admissions processes that do not require applicants to submit standardized test scores.