As one of 18 states in which 100 percent of graduating high school seniors have taken the ACT college entrance examination, ACT scores represent an important indicator of college and career readiness in Tennessee. This year, more than 63,000 public high school graduates statewide took the exam—an increase of more than 3,000 test-takers from 2015—and the published results provide data needed to understand how well our schools are preparing young people for success in postsecondary and career opportunities. Results provide both good news and compelling evidence for the need to do more.
The ACT includes four sections: English, reading, mathematics, and science, with different score cutoffs set for each section to determine whether students are prepared for college-level success (grade C or higher) in each subject. Statewide, 20 percent of test-takers scored at college-ready levels across all four areas, trailing the national average of 26 percent. Compared to their peers in neighboring states in which all graduating seniors took the ACT, a higher percentage of Tennessee students scored at college-ready levels in all four subject areas than those in Mississippi, Alabama, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Only Missouri had a higher proportion of students who met all four benchmarks. Looking only at public schools in Tennessee, 17 percent of their graduates scored at or above college-ready benchmarks in all subject areas; those graduates received an average composite score of 19.4 on the ACT’s 36-point scale.
As noted by ACT last year, students who complete rigorous courses of study in high school have substantially higher odds of scoring at college-ready ACT levels than their peers who do not. Across all subject areas, students completing the most rigorous available courses of study consistently scored at college-ready benchmarks at higher rates than their peers completing other course sequences.
Racial and Ethnic Disparities
Students identifying across all racial and ethnic populations in Tennessee scored at levels below national averages, but the average score among black students within Tennessee of 16.5 trails those of their Hispanic peers by nearly 2 points and of their white peers by 4 full points. Of note, the number of students choosing not to indicate a racial/ethnic identity has more than doubled from 2,564 to 6,492 between 2014 and 2016. The average composite score for those students in 2016 was 17.9.
In addition, compared to 2012 rates, 4 percent more Asian and 4 percent more white students in 2016 scored above college-ready benchmark levels in three or all four subject areas. These results represent a 2 percentage point decline, however, for Asian students and the same level of readiness among white students compared to last year. Only one in five Hispanic students scored at college-ready levels in three or more subject areas, and still fewer than one in ten black students did so.
Postsecondary Aspiration and Career Readiness Gaps
According to ACT, 80 percent of Tennessee 2016 high school graduates indicated they aspire to postsecondary education. In 2015, 84 percent aspired to postsecondary education, but only 60 percent of graduates enrolled—a 3 percentage point increase compared to 2014. Closing this gap would add nearly 16,000 students to the state’s college enrollment.
Only 13 percent of Tennessee test-takers met the science/math readiness benchmark score of 26 in those subject areas, trailing the 20 percent of students nationwide scoring at this level. This gap has problematic implications, given that nearly one in five students indicated a career interest in health sciences and technologies.
For the first time, ACT this year reported students’ progress toward career readiness based on their composite scores. These readiness indicators are based on research tying composite scores to National Career Readiness Certificate (NCRC) levels. Progressively higher NCRC levels indicate students would be more likely to exhibit workplace employability skills key to job success. Although Tennessee test-takers scored comparably to the national average in Bronze and Silver categories, they were 9 percentage points less likely to score in the Gold range, and Gold range Tennessee students scored nearly a full point lower, on average, than their peers nationally.
Promising Notes for the Future
On a positive note, nearly 1,300 more students scored 21 or above this year, qualifying them for HOPE scholarship aid. And although too few students now meet college-ready benchmarks, ACT data indicate the potential for continued gains in the coming years. Thousands of students statewide scored within 2 points of meeting subject area benchmarks this year, and sustained commitment to high standards could elevate college and career readiness rates in years ahead. This year, Tennessee becomes the first state to provide students an opportunity to re-take the ACT without charge to them. This opportunity will give students the chance to surpass college-ready benchmarks, potentially qualifying them for financial aid programs that enhance the affordability of postsecondary options.
Sustained commitment to high standards, focusing attention on disparities in preparation, and providing students and educators with the data and support they need hold great promise for ensuring consistently greater numbers of high school seniors are ready for success beyond graduation day.