The latest ACT results for Tennessee show progress in college and career readiness of graduates and reflect the impact of the work by the state to encourage seniors to retake the exam. Across subject areas on the college-entrance exam, performance rose in notable ways.

The Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) reported that a calculation based on students’ best scores lifted the statewide average composite score to 20.1 on the exam’s 36-point scale, a 0.2 increase from 19.9 last year. Still, these results should also be considered in the context of results released by the ACT organization in early September. Both the TDOE and ACT data have important insights to offer.

ACT’s report on the Condition of College and Career Readiness in Tennessee details the college-ready benchmark scores that analysts at ACT have determined a student would need to clear to demonstrate they are ready for college-level work in English, reading, math, and science. The report’s analysis, therefore, focuses on the proportion of students who met or exceeded those subject-area benchmark scores. By ACT’s accounting, just 19 percent of high school graduates in Tennessee last year were college-ready across all four core subject areas, compared to 27 percent of graduates nationally. Further, almost 40 percent of Tennessee test-takers did not score at a college-ready level on any subject area. This figure has remained the same over the past three years.

Rather than focus on how many students surpass scientifically determined benchmark scores, Tennessee as a state is focused on achieving a strategic goal: an average statewide composite score of 21 by 2020. This year’s rise to an average composite of 20.1 represents an important mile marker on this journey.

A look at public school test-takers’ data as reported by ACT last year, however, shows an average composite of 19.4. Why the difference? ACT reports include all test-takers’ most recent scores. Rather than use this measure, the state has commissioned a report based on a student’s best score—the score institutions of higher education would consider for a student’s application. The TDOE also removes from consideration test-takers who did not ultimately graduate from high school, while those test results are reflected in the ACT’s reporting. Tennessee recorded an all-time high graduation rate of nearly 90 percent in 2017.

By any measure, however, ACT results also show how far Tennessee has to go in preparing all students for success beyond high school graduation day. Although the state-offered retake opportunity last fall enabled 40 percent of 26,000 test-takers to increase their scores and 1,800 to surpass the 21 composite score they needed to qualify for up to $16,000 in HOPE scholarship funds from the state, wide disparities still separate student groups.

Among results released by the TDOE, about 42 percent of test-takers scored 21 or above, while about 43 percent scored below 19. In comparison, half of white students scored 21 or above, while a third scored below 19. The reverse trend was true for black and Hispanic/Latino students.

Results also show wide gaps across economic backgrounds. Almost two-thirds of students identified as economically disadvantaged scored below 19; only one-third of non-economically disadvantaged students did so.

Similarly stark gaps appear when looking at results comparing students with disabilities and those without recognized disabilities.

Tennessee is home to a small, but rapidly growing and diverse population of English language learner students. Results from English learners show fewer than one-in-ten scored 21 or above.

ACT’s Condition of College and Career Readiness report again shows the urgent need for better preparing students from historically underserved populations—students of color, low-income students, those with disabilities, and English learners. As SCORE has noted previously, results have consistently shown over recent years that just 10 percent of African American students and only about 20 percent of Hispanic/Latino students demonstrate college readiness in at least three core subject areas.

Regardless of the measures used, we know that far too many students of all backgrounds across our state leave high school without the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in the college or career of their choosing. Making gains on this front is extremely difficult work, and all progress is welcome. And while Tennessee has made important progress toward the goal of a statewide average ACT composite score of 21 by 2020, the longer-term, pressing goal for our state and its economy to have more than half of Tennesseans holding a postsecondary credential by 2025 will be difficult to reach as long as the lack of preparedness persists.