NATIONAL FIGURES: ACT scores nationally are higher in part because a smaller percent of students take the test. ACT INC.

The state Education Department released aggregate ACT scores for the graduating class of 2017 Thursday morning. The scores reflect for the first time a new statewide program to administer the college entrance exam to all public school juniors, free of charge. (Taking the test isn’t mandatory for students, but most do.)

Arkansas’s average composite ACT score fell by almost a full point, from 20.2 for last year’s graduating class to 19.4 for the cohort that just graduated in May. That figure includes both public and private school students. For public school students alone, the average composite score was 19.2. (The maximum possible ACT score is a 36.)


Yet that drop can be explained by the fact that 25 percent more public school students took the test, the Education Department said. Public schools statewide began administering the test to all juniors — paid for by the state — in 2016. The class of 2017 was therefore the first cohort of public school students who benefited from the statewide program. (The free statewide administration requirement only applies to public schools; private schools abide by different testing standards.)

“The ACT results for the 2017 public school graduating class represent a new baseline for Arkansas, as this is the first time the statewide administration of the exam is reflected in the scores for the graduating class,” Education Commissioner Johnny Key said in the department’s press release.


That explanation makes sense. If you only test the students who are likely to perform well, or who are certain they’re college-bound, your aggregate scores will be higher. If you test all students, your aggregate scores will likely decline. (A separate question is whether or not the 0.8 point decline can be wholly explained by the increase in the number of participants.)

According to ACT, Inc., there are 16 other states that have instituted a similar statewide ACT program and which have effectively universal participation rates for public school graduates. Their composite scores range from a low of 17.8 (Nevada) to a high of 21.5 (Minnesota). Most of Arkansas’s neighbors administer the test statewide, and Arkansas 19.4 average is comparable to those found in Louisiana (19.5), Mississippi (18.6), Missouri (20.4), Oklahoma (19.4) and Tennessee (19.8).


The same dynamic is at play in figures that purport to show students’ “college readiness” based on the ACT. Only 16 percent of Arkansas’s graduating class in 2017 met a college readiness benchmark score in all four areas tested (English, reading, math and science), while the national figure was 27 percent of test-taking 2017 graduates. However, only an estimated 60 percent of graduating students took the ACT (in many states, the majority of students take the SAT but not the ACT). In Arkansas, close to 100 percent of graduating students took the ACT.

Arkansas still lags national figures in education metrics, but not nearly as much as it once did. Unfortunately, Arkansas also has the same deficiencies as other states, including a yawning achievement gap based on socioeconomics and race. The Washington Post points out those disparities (although I believe the paper may not distinguish between “all students in the class of 2017” and “those who took the ACT” in the national figures cited below):

Scores from the ACT show that just 9 percent of students in the class of 2017 who came from low-income families, whose parents did not go to college, and who identify as black, Hispanic, American Indian or Pacific Islander are strongly ready for college.

But the readiness rate for students with none of those demographic characteristics was six times as high, 54 percent, according to data released Thursday.

“That kind of shocked us,” ACT chief executive Marten Roorda said. “We knew it was bad, but we didn’t know it was this bad.”