Utah’s ACT scores inch up again — but most high school graduates are still not college-ready in math, reading or science

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Davis High School AP Art History and AP Economics teacher Kelly Oram keeps his students engaged during a macroeconomics lesson on Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017.

Utah’s ACT scores inched up again this year — edging closer to but still falling below the national average.

“The needle is moving in the right direction,” said Mark Peterson, spokesman for the Utah Board of Education. “We just wish we could move it a lot further and faster.”

The state’s 2018 graduating class scored an average of 20.4 points on the college readiness exam, which has a 36-point scale. The national average, which dipped slightly this year, was 20.8.

Utah administers the test to 100 percent of its public-school seniors, which means its average score tends to be lower than states where the ACT is voluntary and more likely to be completed by only high-achieving or college-bound students.

Because of that, its performance ranks 28th nationwide. But it places second among the 17 states that also give the exam to every graduating student (coming in behind Wisconsin and ahead of Ohio).

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

“You’re testing not only students who are going to college but also those who aren’t necessarily preparing for that outcome,” said ACT spokesman Ed Colby. “The scores tend to be lower — and in most cases significantly lower.”

But Utah’s average, he added, has ticked up for the past two years. In 2017, the state’s average composite score was 20.3. In 2016, it was 20.2.

One-tenth of a point may not seem like much, Colby said, but it’s actually a significant gain for a year’s difference. And it continues an upward trend. “That’s a really good sign. The numbers are encouraging.”

Meanwhile, the nation’s average composite went from 21 last year to 20.8 this year. That’s likely due to more students taking the test and causing a small dip.

Utah’s ACT data include 43,791 students — about 1,600 of whom attend private school or are home-schooled, Peterson said, and tend to bring the score up slightly.

Among demographic groups, white and Asian students in Utah scored the highest, with an average of 21.4 points. Black and American Indian students scored the lowest, with 16.2.

“We need to continue to focus on closing achievement gaps and ensuring each student is academically prepared to succeed after high school,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson said in a statement.

ACT also sets college-readiness benchmarks, which indicate the likelihood that a student would earn a B grade in an entry-level university course. In Utah, 24 percent of students met that for all four test subjects — English, reading, science and math. Nationally, 27 percent did.

The state saw the highest average scores in English: 58 percent. But the majority of students fell below the benchmark in reading at 43 percent, science at 34 percent and math at 36 percent.

“We’re not hiding this,” Peterson said. “There’s plenty of work to do.”

The national score fell to its lowest point in the past 14 years for math, as well, with 40 percent meeting the mark. The results released Wednesday show more than 1.9 million students completed the ACT, amounting to about 55 percent of seniors who graduated in 2018.

The majority of Utah students sent their scores to schools in the state. The top three were the University of Utah, Utah Valley University and Utah State University.