LITTLE ROCK - The ACT is the most important standardized test for high school students in Arkansas, and every year parents and educators anticipate the releasing of test scores to see how our students are performing.
In the past decade Arkansas students have shown steady improvement because more of them are taking college preparatory courses. However, their average scores have usually been slightly below the national average and on par with neighboring states.
This year marks a dramatic shift in how Arkansas administers the ACT tests and interprets the composite scores. For the first time, every student in the eleventh grade took the test, rather than merely those students who had plans to go to college.
As recently as 2013 a third of high school juniors in the state did not take the ACT, but now Arkansas is one of 17 states nationwide in which all eleventh graders take it.
Earlier this year, 34,451 high school juniors took the ACT. They are now seniors. In 2013 the number of Arkansas juniors who took the test was 25,875.
As a result of dramatically expanding the number of test takers, the average score went down from 20.2 last year to 19.4 this year. The best possible score is 36.
The ACT has four subject areas - English, reading, math and science. Nationwide and in Arkansas, students performed best on the reading section. Our average score was 19.7, down from 20.7 in 2016.
In math Arkansas students' average score was 19 this year, compared to 19.6 last year. In English it was 18.9 this year and 19.8 last year. In science the average score in Arkansas fell from 20.2 in 2016 to 19.5 in 2017.
In spite of the declines in average test scores, the state's top education officials were encouraged by the results. First of all, a large number of new students was added to the cohort, which is the official terminology for the group taking the test.
The total number of test takers grew by 35 percent over the past four years, so the slight decline in average scores is not a cause for great concern. Those new test takers are the students who never planned to go to college or pursue academics, and they generally take the ACT only once.
Students planning for college often take the test more than once in order to bring up their score. The average score of students who took the test only once was 16.5, and for students who took it multiple times the average score was 21.1.
The state Department of Career Education offers evening and weekend classes for students who score below a 19 and want to improve their scores on a second attempt at the ACT.
Students who score below 19 must take remedial course work in college. Those classes bring their academics up to college level, and the student does not earn college credits for passing them.
Arkansas students must score a 19 to qualify for Academic Challenge Scholarships, which are funded by the state lottery.
In several neighboring states all high school juniors now take the ACT. In Louisiana the average score was 19.5, in Mississippi it was 18.6, in Missouri it was 20.4 and in Tennessee it was 19.8.