ACT Update: Indicators of College Readiness in Tennessee

As one of 13 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 readiness in Tennessee. This year, more than 68,000 graduates statewide took the exam, and the published results provide educators data needed to understand how well our schools are preparing young people for success in postsecondary opportunities. Results provide both good news and compelling evidence for the need to do more.

The ACT includes four sections: English, mathematics, reading, 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 28 percent. Among public high school test-takers, 17 percent of graduates scored at college ready levels across all subject areas. 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 (13 percent), Alabama (16 percent) and North Carolina (18 percent). In Kentucky, 21 percent of graduates met all four benchmarks.

Rigorous Course-Taking

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

Although ACT data indicate the power of rigorous coursework to prepare students for college level work, to date national disparities in readiness levels across racial and ethnic populations have been reflected in the scores of Tennessee students.

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Although students identifying across all racial and ethnic populations in Tennessee score at levels below national averages, 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.

In addition, compared to 2011 rates, 7 percent more Asian and 6 percent more white students in 2015 scored above college-ready benchmark levels in three or all four subject areas. Comparable increases among Hispanic and African-American students have trailed at 3 percent and 2 percent, respectively, over this time period.

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STEM Preparation

Racial and ethnic disparities reflected in ACT composite scores are even more dramatic when data are disaggregated by subject area. Although more than half of self-identified students of Asian descent and more than a third of students identifying as white scored above college-ready benchmarks in math and science, just one in five Hispanic students and fewer than one in ten black students met those benchmarks.

Promising Notes for the Future

ACT 2015 data reveal Tennessee is making progress in preparing students for success in college, but educators and policymakers must remain committed to high standards and high levels of support for all students. Although too few students now meet college-ready benchmarks, ACT data indicate the potential for strong 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.

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According to ACT, 84 percent of Tennessee 2015 high school graduates indicated they aspire to postsecondary education; in 2014, 57 percent of graduates enrolled. Closing this gap would add nearly 19,000 students to the state’s college enrollment. As Tennessee continues broad efforts to increase college completion, ACT notes that 22 percent of the state’s test-takers would be the first in their family to earn a postsecondary credential, outpacing the 18 percent rate of first-generation test-takers nationwide.

In addition to well documented social and public health benefits of a more educated citizenry, increasing postsecondary educational attainment presents an essential workforce imperative for Tennessee. By 2020, about two-thirds of jobs in Tennessee will require education beyond high school. Further, job creators from small businesses to multinational corporations interested in expanding in Tennessee increasingly need employees with the technical and critical thinking skills provided by postsecondary education and required to compete in a global economy.

Sustained commitment to high standards, focusing attention on addressing disparities in preparation, and providing students and educators with the data and support they need hold great promise for ensuring progress toward ensuring all high school seniors are ready for success beyond graduation day.

Further details and more data from the 2015 ACT.

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Kyle Southern

Kyle Southern is an independent education policy and research consultant based in Nashville, TN. He is also a doctoral candidate in higher education administration at the University of Michigan. Kyle previously served as Director of Policy and Research at SCORE.

The SCORE Sheet is the online conversation on public education reform in Tennessee and is hosted by SCORE. The blog mirrors SCORE’s collaborative nature and features contributors from Tennessee and across the country including students, parents, teachers, policymakers, community groups, and members of SCORE’s team. Regardless of perspective, contributors share a common goal: that every child graduates from high school prepared for college or the workforce.

Posts on The SCORE Sheet are the opinions of the individual contributors and are not necessarily reflective of the opinions and positions of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE).