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story.lead_photo.caption ACT results: 2015-19

Arkansas' average ACT score largely held steady for the second year in a row, data released today by the testing agency shows.

The state's average composite score for the 2019 high school graduating class was 19.3, slightly down from 19.4 last year. It also was 19.4 in 2017, the year the state began having every 11th-grader take the exam.

That 0.1-point drop doesn't say much, state education officials said.

"It's not the direction to go," state Higher Education Division Director Maria Markham said, but "I don't think it's a statistically significant change."

Changes to the ACT next year hold some promise for score improvement, Arkansas officials said, while currently the numbers show most Arkansas students aren't ready for college.

Statistics such as those released today are increasingly being reviewed with caution by a growing contingent of colleges, universities and critics nationwide. They are concerned that admission based on standardized test scores favors students who have the means to afford test preparation, and more colleges and universities are opting not to require specific standardized test scores for admissions.

But the scores offer one way -- a data point -- of assessing student performance and how prepared for college Arkansas students are, regardless of whether they plan to go to college, said Stacy Smith, an Arkansas Department of Education assistant commissioner who oversees learning services.

This year, the ACT for the first time provided data on what percentage of students took the exam in each state, in addition to its data on what those states' average scores were. That gives educators new perspective on how Arkansas fares in a more comparable peer group -- one in which all of the states administer the exam to all students, including those who aren't planning to go to college.

Of the 15 states that tested every student, Arkansas scored ahead of five of them: Alabama (18.9), Louisiana (18.8), Mississippi (18.4), Nevada (17.9) and Oklahoma (18.9).

"We are just right there with those other states," Smith said.

Arkansas is doing better than some states, such as Oklahoma, that have lower poverty rates, said Sarah McKenzie, director of the Office of Education Policy at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.

The highest-scoring states with 100% testing rates were Utah and Wisconsin, where the 2019 graduating classes averaged a score of 20.3.

Averages are based on each individual test-taker's most recent score.

The ACT recommends comparing states with similar percentages of students taking the exam. Scores are generally higher in states in which fewer than half of the students took the exam. Most of those states are concentrated in coastal areas, where the SAT is standard.

The national average ACT score was 20.7, but that factors in the higher scores in states where test-takers were more likely to be college-bound. Compared to all states, Arkansas' score is ahead of only eight of them. It's tied with New Mexico.

Nationally, 52% of graduating seniors took the ACT.

The ACT is used as an admissions requirement at all Arkansas public universities and colleges. Generally, 19 is the minimum required overall score, and students must additionally earn a 19 or higher in a subject to avoid remedial courses or accommodations.

The state's average score isn't much of an indicator of the college readiness of students who will actually go to college, Markham said. A large percentage of the students who take it, and are included in the score, have no intention of going to college.

But the individual test-taker scores, not the averages, mean something for kindergarten-through-12th-grade educators.

The scores can help faculty and staff members guide students toward the right classes for their senior year, Smith said. Educators can spot who may be ready for college and encourage them to sign up for courses that could help them transition to higher education.

"It's a great opportunity for schools to start talking to kids," Smith said.

The report released today shows that a higher percentage of Arkansas students (77%) signed up for the ACT's Education Opportunity Service than students nationwide (66%). That service "allows students to gain exposure to recruitment, scholarship agencies, colleges, and universities," according to the ACT.

But only about half of the state's graduating class of high school students goes on to attend a college or university, McKenzie said. That's her biggest concern.

The state does a good job of requiring Advanced Placement courses at all Arkansas high schools and offering some ACT testing support for free, McKenzie said.

"But what we see is that students are reporting that they want to go to college, but they aren't going," McKenzie said. "I think we need to do more research into barriers that our graduates are encountering."

Nationally, 76% of graduates "aspired" to attend college in 2018 and 65% of them actually enrolled in college, the ACT reported. Comparable statistics were not available for Arkansas.

This spring's graduating class largely was not ready for college, according to the ACT's report.

Only 16% of graduates met readiness benchmarks in all four subjects, while 43% of graduates met none of the readiness benchmarks. Those percentages were 17% and 43% last year, respectively.

Most -- 53% -- met the English readiness benchmark, the same percentage as last year.

Only 26% -- compared with 27% last year -- met the math readiness benchmark.

For reading, 35% met the readiness benchmark, down from 36% last year.

In science, 25% met the benchmark, down from 26% last year.

Most Arkansas students, 64%, were ready for some sort of career, the ACT reported.

Students who meet the benchmarks are more likely to graduate from college, according to the ACT.

Some schools have found that high school grade-point average is often a better indicator of student success in higher education than the ACT, Markham said. That shows students' grit, commitment to coursework and study habits, she said.

But not all schools' grading systems are equal, McKenzie said, which is why the ACT is used to compare students across the nation.

"I think that it's great for college to not require the ACT or SAT for acceptance to their school as admissions requirements," McKenzie said. "I'm a little concerned that it may lead us to a feeling of greater equalization without seeing that actually demonstrated in college acceptance rates."

Colleges are rated based on their acceptance rates, McKenzie said. If standardized test score barriers are removed, then the colleges may receive more applicants but attempt to keep the same acceptance rate, she said.

It's not clear yet what effect getting rid of standardized test score requirements has made on the demographics of admitted students at those schools, McKenzie said.

The University of Chicago boasts a more diverse freshman class after removing the standardized test requirement, but the school made sweeping changes in admissions beyond that. The university increased financial aid and boosted resources for "students of high ability from underrepresented communities."

One ACT change starting next fall could benefit lower-income students, McKenzie said. The ACT will allow students to retake a section of the test, rather than signing up to take the whole test again.

Students who take the test more than once tend to do better than students who only take it once. Those who took multiple tests were generally wealthier students who also did test preparation, McKenzie said.

The change could increase equity in ACT scores if students can retake a single section more cheaply than retaking the entire test, she said.

Whether students get the resources to help them improve their scores the second time will make the difference, McKenzie said, "if they increase their knowledge or focus if they take it again."

"Then the test is better representing what they actually know and are able to do," McKenzie said.

A Section on 10/30/2019

Print Headline: ACT scores see little change in state

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