Utah’s ACT scores inch up; state ranks either 33rd or 5th. Here’s why.

Average scores in rise from 20.2 to 20.3, while fewer than 1 in 4 Utah students met the benchmark scores for college readiness on all four ACT test subjects. <br>

Utah’s high school class of 2017 scored an average of 20.3 points on the ACT, slightly better than 2016 students’ 20.2 but still behind the national mark of 21 on a 36-point scale, officials said Wednesday.

“It‘s good news,” Mark Peterson, spokesman for the Utah Board of Education, said of new data released by the college-readiness testing organization. “It‘s not great news, but it’s good news.”

The performance of Utah students ranks 33rd nationwide, when compared to all states, including ones where only college-bound and high-achieving students take the ACT. 

Utah tied for fifth place among the 17 states where the ACT is administered to 100 percent of public-school children. Wider student participation in the ACT correlates with lower statewide scores, ACT spokesman Ed Colby said, because in states where the ACT is voluntary, the exam is more likely to be completed by high-achieving students.

“You’re including students in Utah who might not have been preparing for the outcome of college,” Colby said.

Utah’s ACT data include roughly 3,000 private- and home-school students, Peterson said, who completed the exam outside the direction of the state’s public school system. 

Among demographic groups, white students in Utah scored the highest with an average of 21.4 points, while black and American Indian students scored 16.6 points and 16 points, respectively.

ACT data also show that 23 percent of Utah test-takers achieved the minimum benchmark scores for college readiness in all four test subjects — 23 points for science, 22 points for both reading and mathematics and 18 points for English.

That success rate is unchanged from 2016, when 23 percent of students similarly met the college-readiness benchmarks, defined as the minimum score at which a student is expected to have a 50 percent likelihood of earning a grade of B or higher in a first-year college or university course.

“The [state school] board is looking for everybody doing well and hitting those college-readiness benchmarks,” Peterson said.

ACT overtook its rival, the SAT, as the nation’s largest college-readiness exam in 2012. The results released Thursday show more than 2 million students completing the ACT, or roughly 60 percent of the national graduating class of 2017.

Growth of ACT participation was partly fueled by so-called full-census states, such as Utah, adopting the exam as a universal standard for high school college readiness. A suite of pre-ACT assessments has also grown in popularity as states have incorporated the tests into their responses to a host of federal requirements.

The Utah Board of Education had planned to replace its year-end test, SAGE, with ACT assessments in grades nine and 10 for the current school year. But that decision was recently reversed due to concerns that the national exam would violate state testing and school accountability laws.

High school juniors will continue to take the ACT test each year, but a search for a new testing system to replace SAGE in grades three through 10 is ongoing.

“Raising ACT scores is a priority for the Utah State Board of Education,” State Superintendent Sydnee Dickson said in a statement. “We are confronting the challenges brought on by increasing numbers of students taking the test and by the increasing economic diversity in the state.”