LITTLE ROCK Students graduating from Arkansas high schools in 2012 had an average score of 20.3 on the 36-point ACT college admissions test, which is an increase from last year’s average of 19.9 and a return to slightly higher scores in previous years.
That’s compared with a national average composite score of 21.1, according to results released today.
The state continued to outpace the country in testtaking rates but lagged behind in the testing organization’s measures of college readiness.
Of the most recent Arkansas graduating class, 88 percent, or 26,058 students, took the ACT at least once.
Nationwide, 52 percent of students in the 2012 graduating class took the ACT. The test is less popular in some states where the SAT is more common.
Arkansas’ high ACT participation rates come at a time when state leaders are pushing to enroll more students in college and to pro- vide the assistance they need to graduate.
“More students are looking at college as an option,” said Shane Broadway, interim director of the Arkansas Department of Higher Education.
“Anything beyond a high school diploma is going to give them more opportunities. There’s certainly more options for them now than there were a few years ago.”
The number of tested Arkansas students has increased 15.6 percent since 2008, according to the ACT report.
Education leaders partially attributed that increase to the recently expanded Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarship. Using funds from the state lottery, the program provides up to $4,500 a year to eligible students with a minimum composite score of 19 on the ACT.
More students may take the test as they seek to qualify for the financial aid, they said.
Broadway also pointed to state funds that allow participating districts to pay ACT testing fees for low-income students and career coaches in the state’s poorest counties as causes for high participation rates.
Arkansas is one of 15 states where at least 80 percent of 2012 graduates took the ACT, according to today’s report.
Higher participation rates can drive down average scores when some students who may not be considering college take the test, Broadway said.
Arkansas colleges and universities use ACT results to determine whether students must take noncredit, remedial classes before they can enroll in traditional course work.
Under state law, students with a score below 19 on a section of the test — math, English or reading — must enroll in remedial courses in that subject.
But ACT sets a different bar for college readiness in those subjects, which means that some students that Arkansas considers prepared for college would be labeled unprepared by the testing organization.
Under the organization’s standards, students are considered prepared for college classes if they score at or above 18 in English, 21 in reading, 22 in math and 24 in science.
Students who score at those levels have a 50 percent chance of earning a B or higher and a 75 percent chance of earning a C or higher in corresponding first-year college courses, according to the ACT report.
According to that report, 19 percent of Arkansas’ 2012 high school graduates could be considered college-ready in all four subjects, compared with 25 percent of students nationwide. That’s a state increase from 17 percent in 2011 and 18 percent in 2009 and 2010.
In 2012, 64 percent of Arkansas students reached the ACT’s benchmark in English, compared with 67 percent nationally. In the reading category, 48 percent of Arkansans taking the test hit the readiness mark, compared with 52 percent nationally.
Only 36 percent of Arkansas test takers in math hit the ACT’s benchmark, while 46 percent did nationally.
Arkansas seniors scored lowest in science, with only 23 percent hitting the ACT benchmark, compared with 31 percent nationally.
“Far too many high school graduates are still falling short academically,” ACT chief executive officer Jon Whitemore said in a statement. “We need to do more to ensure that our young people improve.”
ACT recommends boosting student scores by encouraging students to take rigorous classes and participate in a minimum core curriculum.
Higher percentages of Arkansas students who reported completion of a minimum core curriculum met the readiness benchmarks than those who did not complete those courses. That curriculum, as defined by ACT, is four years of English and three years each of math, social studies and science.
Arkansas Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell has said the state’s adoption of Common Core curriculum standards will help boost college readiness among graduates and allow teachers to better track students’ academic progress, allowing them to intervene earlier.
The new standards — or guidelines for what students should know and be able to do — were developed by national committees of specialists in the math and language arts subject areas at the direction of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.
Use of the standards by states is voluntary. The Arkansas Board of Education adopted the standards in July 2010. Forty-four other states and the District of Columbia have done likewise.
By 2015, Arkansas will replace its standardized student achievement tests with an assessment based on the new curriculum standards and developed by a multi-state consortium.
That assessment may eventually replace the ACT as a placement test for the state’s colleges and universities, Broadway said.
“The ACT is certainly not the only indicator of success in college,” he said. “It’s one piece of the puzzle.”