Utah’s ACT scores hold steady as national average slips

August 24, 2016 GMT

That gap in ACT scores between Utah and the nation tightened this year as thousands of new test-takers drove down performance across the country, according to data released Wednesday by ACT.

Utah’s graduating seniors earned an average score of 20.2 — on a 36-point scale — compared with the U.S. average of 20.8.

The state’s composite score is unchanged from 2015, while the national average ticked down from a score of 21 last year on the college readiness exam.

Deputy State Superintendent Rich Nye said the results are encouraging, particularly when considering that Utah is one of 19 “full census” states where the ACT is taken by all public high school students.

A score of 20.2, Nye said, is enough for the average Utah graduate to enroll at most institutions of higher education.

“Universities will accept a much lower composite score than 20.2,” Nye said. “It does speak to the opportunities that are being made available to our students.”

Utah led the field of full-census states in 2013 and 2014, but has seen its ranking fall as more states adopt the practice of testing all students.

Utah is now tied for eighth place, with Missouri, among states where all high school graduates take the ACT.

Broader participation traditionally corresponds with a decline in test scores; this year only one full-census state, Minnesota, bested the national average with a composite score of 21.1.

ACT spokesman Ed Colby said the dip in the average national score is primarily due to the addition of seven full-census states and an increase of more than 165,000 test takers compared with 2015.

“You’re adding students who probably weren’t preparing to go to college and probably were in the lower levels of academic achievement,” he said. “On the whole, we’re not seeing a decline [in performance], but the seven new states testing all students really dropped significantly, as Utah did when they began this program.”

ACT also sets college-readiness benchmarks, which represent the score at which a student has a 50 percent likelihood of earning a B grade in entry-level college courses.

In Utah, 23 percent of students met the benchmarks for all four test subjects — English, math, science and reading — compared to 26 percent of students nationally.

Nye said the ACT benchmark is one of several indicators that a student is on track for higher education.

“A lot of our students are going to move on to college and be successful despite the fact of not meeting that metric,” Nye said.

The performance of Utah’s demographic subgroups remained unchanged or improved slightly compared to last year.

The average ACT score for black students increased from 16.3 to 16.6, with Pacific Islanders ticking up from 17 to 17.2 and both Asian and Latino students seeing increases of one-tenth point to 20.7 and 17.3, respectively.

The only drop was among students who did not identify a race, from a score of 18.6 to 18.5.

ACT overtook the SAT as the nation’s most popular college readiness exam in 2012.

More than 2 million students completed the ACT this year, or 64 percent of the national class of 2016, according to ACT.

In recent years, college and career readiness has become a focus of public education systems across the country, with most states adopting academic standards designed to prepare graduates to enter higher education or the workforce.

The percentage of students meeting ACT’s college-readiness benchmarks have remained relatively unchanged since 2012, but Colby said it takes time for systemwide updates to show results.

“That remains a significant problem; we don’t want to downplay that,” he said. “We are hopeful that as the higher standards are in place longer, that we’ll start to see more and more students who are ready when they graduate from high school.”

bwood@sltrib.com Twitter: @bjaminwood