Arkansas' high school class of 2010 took the ACT college entrance exam in record numbers, earning a composite score of 20.3.
The composite score was lower than last year's score of 20.6 and below the national average of 21. The exam is scored on a scale of 1 to 36.
The results, released today, also show that fewer than 1 in 5 Arkansas students were prepared for college success in all four tested areas of English, reading, mathematics and science.
The rising number of test takers and their performance comes at a time when Arkansas is attempting to raise its national ranking in the percentage of adults who have college degrees. In recent years, Arkansas has ranked as low as 49th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia in terms of residents who have a four-year degree.
A total of 24,578 Arkansas students, or 81 percent of the graduating class this year, took the test. That was up 2,055 students from the previous year, when 22,523 students, 73 percent of the 2009 class, took the state's most popular college-entrance exam.
Arkansas is one of 10 states in which 80 percent or more of this year's graduating class took the ACT.
"There is a lot of good news in this particular report,” Jim Purcell, director of the Arkansas Department of Higher Education, said Tuesday, about the jump in test takers. He attributed that increase to state initiatives to better prepare students to take the exam and attend college.
The initiatives include the assignment of career counselors to community college campuses to work with high school students in high-poverty regions of the state.
Additionally, thousands of 11th-graders in a growing number of Arkansas school districts have had the chance over the past two years to take the ACT at no cost at their schools.
That not only increases the number of students starting on a path to college, Purcell said, but also enables their schools to diagnose and address any academic weaknesses before the students graduate.
A total of 6,221 Arkansas students in 62 school districts participated in that Voluntary Universal ACT Assessment program in 2009, and their numbers are included in the 2010 ACT report. Nearly 16,000 11th-graders in 161 districts similarly participated this past spring and their scores will be included in next year's ACT calculations.
Another reason for the increase in test takers this year, Purcell said, is the Academic Challenge Scholarship program, which is funded by the state's new lottery.
In general, high school graduates who earn a 19 or better on the ACT or a 2.5 grade-point average in the recommended high school curriculum can qualify for the scholarships - $5,000 a year for four-year campuses and $2,500 a year for the two-year colleges.
Arkansas students who score below a 19 on the reading, math or English portions of the ACT test must take noncredit remedial courses. Purcell said including a score of 19 or better as one of the scholarship criteria could reduce the need for costly remedial programs at colleges and universities. Students would work harder to score at least 19.
Tom W. Kimbrell, Arkansas commissioner of education, also heralded the increase in test takers.
"In Arkansas, we know it is critical to have more of our citizens earning college degrees, so we must do everything we can to make higher education a more likely option for all students,” Kimbrell said.
"Still, anytime you expand the pool of test takers, you should not be surprised if the average score drops some,” he said. "In fact, officials from ACT told us that they had observed similar declines in scores in other states that were pushing to have more students take the ACT, but that scores usually climbed fairly quickly after that initial drop.”
Sixty percent of the Arkansas test takers in the class of 2010 achieved a score of 19 or higher on the ACT English test as required to avoid having to take noncredit remedial courses, according to today's ACT report. Fifty three percent achieved a 19 or higher on the ACT math test, again necessary to avoid college remedial courses that do not carry credit toward a college degree.
As a part of its 20.3 ACT composite score, Arkansas test takers in the class of 2010 earned an average 20.1 on the English section of the test, an average 19.9 in math, 20.6 in reading and 20.2 in science.
Those were down from last year's state results of 20.6 in English, 20.1 in math, and 21.0 in reading. The science score was unchanged from last year at 20.2.
On the national level, ACT officials described the 21.0 composite score as essentially unchanged. That's despite the fact that the national pool of test takers has increased by 30 percent since 2006 and is more racially and ethically diverse.
The ACT organization has established minimum scores in reading, English, math and science - called college readiness benchmarks - to be used to gauge a student's likelihood of success in related college courses.
The college-readiness benchmark is the minimum score needed on an ACT subject area test that indicates that a student has a 50 percent chance of making a B in a related, first-year college course, or a 75 percent chance of a C.
On that ACT English test, that minimum score is 18 and on the ACT math test, a 22. On the ACT reading, the minimum score to ensure a 50 percent chance at a B is 21, and on the science test, 24.
Nationally, twenty-four percent of test takers this year met the ACT's college readiness benchmarks in each of the four subject areas. Seventy-one percent met the benchmark in at least one subject area.
In Arkansas, 18 percent of ACT test takers, fewer than 1 in 5, met the benchmarks for college readiness in all four subject areas.
Nationally, 71 percent of 2010 ACT-tested high school graduates took at least a minimum core high school curriculum - four years of English, and three years each of mathematics, social studies and science.
In Arkansas, 77 percent of test takers took what is defined by ACT as the core academic curriculum, earning a composite score of 21.2 compared with the 17.2 score earned by test takers who took less than the core.
The ACT does not release the results for individual Arkansas school districts, leaving it to the districts and schools to release that information.
At North Little Rock High School, for example, the class of 2010 earned a composite score of 20.2 on the scale of 1 to 36.
That composite was up from 20.0 the year before despite a 60-student increase in test takers, bringing the total to 389, school counselor Mary Taylor said.
"We stayed the same in reading, but in English, math and science we improved,” Taylor said. "And in English and science we are above the state average. We were pretty happy with the results, especially since we tested more kids.
"We encourage all of our students to consider education possibilities after high school,” Taylor said.
"Now because of the Academic Challenge Scholarship, more and more students I think will try to go to college. I think we'll see more and more students taking the ACT.”