There's no doubt about it: More Utah high school students than ever are taking the ACT college entrance exam.
It's great news for those who want to see the state's college attendance rates soar. The only downside? As the pool of test-takers has grown, Utah's overall scores have slipped from previous years, now falling below national averages, in many cases. It's something state education leaders say is a side effect of Utah's efforts to add more students into the mix teens who might not otherwise think to take the exam.
"We've seen that same pattern in all of the other states that have gone through this process of moving to 100 percent ACT [test taking]," said Judy Park, state associate superintendent.
Data released Wednesday reveal that among the Class of 2012, Utah's average score dropped to 20.7 from 21.8 the year before, out of a possible 36 points. In that same graduating class, only 23 percent of those who took the test scored high enough on the math, science, reading and English portions to be considered ready for college and careers down from 27 percent among Utah's Class of 2011.
Park, however, pointed out that Utah still ranks highly when compared to other states with many test-takers. Utah teens tied for the second-highest average score in the country when compared to 11 states with similarly high percentages of students taking the ACT. According to ACT data, 97 percent of Utah's Class of 2012 took the test. State education leaders don't believe the number is quite that high, but they agree that participation has ballooned in recent years.
Vicki Varela, a spokeswoman for Prosperity 2020, a business-led initiative to boost education in Utah, said it's great to see more teens taking the test because it means students are thinking about the future. But she said the relatively low percentage of students who test ready for college and careers remains a problem. State leaders and Prosperity 2020 have set a goal that 66 percent of Utah adults hold postsecondary degrees or certificates by 2020 to meet future workforce needs.
"We just can't live with only 23 percent of our students being prepared in all four subject areas for college," Varela said. "If only 23 percent are prepared for postsecondary education, that just leaves a lot of students either not being able to find their way into postsecondary education at all or having to take expensive remedial classes."
In 2007-08, 20 percent of freshmen attending Utah public colleges and universities had to take at least one remedial class, according to the Utah System of Higher Education.
Dave Buhler, Utah's commissioner of higher education, said not all those who need remediation come straight from high school, but there's room for improvement when it comes to college readiness. Still, he said he's not too concerned about dipping ACT scores as they're likely a result of the skyrocketing number of kids taking the test.
"In higher education, we support having every high school student take the ACT," Buhler said. "For one thing, it will help some students who maybe weren't thinking about college to realize they actually can handle college, and it helps them know what to work on to be ready for college."
About half the state's high schools now offer the ACT to students for free during the school day as part of a pilot program, Park said. Education leaders ultimately aim to give the test to all high school juniors.
She said state leaders also hope to improve college and career readiness by adopting new Common Core academic standards, which she noted are more rigorous than Utah's current ones.
SB10, which would have funded a test such as the ACT for all Utah students, failed this past legislative session. Some opponents of the legislation worried about how the Common Core standards might be linked to future ACTs, even though the two are now unrelated. Critics fear the standards will lead to federal intrusion into schools, though state education leaders have repeatedly emphasized that the Common Core is not a federal program.
Elsewhere in this year's ACT data, achievement gaps persisted between the scores of white and minority students.For example, 43 percent of white Utah test-takers scored ready for college in at least three of four test sections, compared with only 17 percent of Latino test-takers. Latinos are, by far, Utah's largest minority group.
Experts say many factors may be to blame for gaps in achievement between white and Latino students, including poverty, parents' education levels and/or lack of familiarity with the school system, stereotyping in schools, language barriers and other factors. But the proportion of those taking the test this year who were Latino shot up by 4 percentage points since last year.