Utah’s ACT test scores are 1st and 23rd in the nation. Here’s why.

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

Among the states that test all of their public school students, Utah’s ACT scores tie for first place in the nation with Wisconsin.

But among all the states — including ones where only college-bound and high-achieving students take the exam — Utah falls toward the middle of the pack.

That means, depending on the numbers, the state is ranked either No. 1 or No. 23.

“The data is kind of funny that way,” said Ed Colby, ACT spokesman, on the report released Wednesday. “But, overall, you’re going to have lower scores in the states where you test all students.”

Utah’s 2019 graduating class scored an average 20.3 points on the college-readiness exam, which has a 36-point scale. That composite includes 43,790 public school students, all of which are required to take the test in high school and some of which don’t plan to go to college.

Fifteen states require 100% participation. And Utah and Wisconsin bested them, followed by Ohio at 20 points and ending with Nevada at 17.9. Last year, Utah ranked second in that group.

“You’re just testing a much broader range of students and skill levels,” Colby said.

In the states with the highest score — a tie between Massachusetts and Connecticut at 25.5 — roughly 20% of the students in each took the test. It’s voluntary there and more likely to be completed by those who perform well.

In that overall list, Utah ranks 23rd, up from 28th last year.

Even though the state moved up in both rankings, it still falls below the national composite score at 20.7 and saw a slight dip from last year, when its average was 20.4.

That is small and the numbers overall remain steady, but it’s the first decline for Utah in the past five years. The scores in the state hit a peak in 2014 at 20.8 before dropping to 20.2 the following year. This dip is much less significant and stays close to the average for the decade.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

“Overall, it’s fairly flat,” said Mark Peterson, spokesman for the Utah Board of Education. “We’d just as soon have it go up rather than down. But it’s fairly flat.”

Peterson believes a potential cause even for that small decline is that fewer students in the state are completing what’s called “core or more.” That’s four years of English and three years each of math, science and social studies (only the English coursework is required by state law).

Five years ago, 56% of Utah students did that between ninth and 12th grades. This year, 48% did.

“There’s a significant gap in the ACT performance of students who take challenging courses and those who don’t,” said State Superintendent Sydnee Dickson in a prepared statement. “We will be working with educators, parents and students to reverse our current trend.”

Meanwhile, among demographic groups in the state, two saw improved scores: American Indian and black student populations at 16.1 and 16.6, respectively. Both jumped three-tenths of a point from 2018.

White and Asian students kept the highest scores at 21.3 and 21.2, despite their own dips from last year.

“It is very heartening to see that we’re coming up from places of need,” Peterson added. “The gap is closing in the right direction.”

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% of students met that for all four test subjects — English, reading, science and math.

Nationally, 26% did.

The state also saw its highest portion of students meeting the benchmark in English: 57%. But the majority continued to fall below in reading at 42%, science at 34% and math at 37%. In fact, math is the only category that saw an increase, up from 36% last year. English and reading went down slightly while science readiness remained the same.

Those also remained below the national scores.

The results released Wednesday show more than 1.8 million students nationwide completed the ACT, amounting to about 52% of seniors who graduated in 2019.

The majority of Utah students sent their scores to colleges in the state. The top three were the University of Utah, Utah Valley University and Utah State University. At least 29% of the students, though, gave no response when asked about their plans for post-secondary education.