Tennessee’s ACT average dips for second straight year after six years of growth

Female student in classroom, working at desk in Hillcrest High School in Memphis, Tennessee
College and career readiness has been a focus of Tennessee’s education policy in the 21st century, but declines in the state’s average ACT score and graduation rate have been disappointments in 2020. (Karen Pulfer Focht for Chalkbeat)

Tennessee’s average ACT score declined slightly for a second straight year, while the number of students taking the college entrance exam also dropped, according to results released Friday.

Public school students in the Class of 2020 finished with an overall average of 19.9 on a scale of 36, down from 20 last year and 20.2 the year before.

The dips, while small, keep Tennessee on a downward trajectory after six years of slow but steady growth on the college entrance exam.

Equally concerning was an across-the-board drop in the percentage of Tennessee students taking the ACT test after record-high participation last year.

About 97% of students participated, down a full percentage point from the Class of 2019. Among historically underserved groups of black, Hispanic, and economically disadvantaged students, the rates went down 2%. Participation by English language learners dropped from 97% to 91%.

While Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn characterized the showing as “relatively stable,” the results are a disappointment for a state that had been closing in on former Gov. Bill Haslam’s goal of reaching the previous national average of 21 by 2020. Just three years earlier, the state celebrated that its ACT average continued to tick upward — in defiance of a national slump — as Tennessee provided students with a free do-over for any student who wanted to retake the exam.

Haslam’s successor, Gov. Bill Lee, has invested more money in vocational education programs to get students ready for college and career. His administration has not identified improving ACT performance as a major strategic goal.

The declines in both scores and participation were not due to disruptions in testing or schooling caused by the coronavirus. Most graduating seniors took the exam during their junior year and had the option of retaking it in the fall of their senior year — months before the pandemic emerged in the U.S.

However, this year’s results don’t bode well for next year’s graduating seniors, whose testing was significantly disrupted by COVID-19. The Class of 2021 mostly took their exams this fall after the ACT’s springtime administration was canceled. Under the state’s retake program, seniors potentially could take the test again in December or next spring.

The latest ACT results represent the second round of recent data showing a decline in postsecondary readiness in Tennessee.

In September, the department reported a dip in Tennessee’s high school graduation rate, even as the state relaxed requirements for seniors to receive their diplomas during the pandemic.

The backsliding in both areas drew a sharp rebuke Friday from JC Bowman, who leads the Professional Educators of Tennessee.

“In less than two years, under this current administration, there has been a lack of focus on postsecondary readiness and measurable objectives,” he said in a statement.

Bowman urged state policymakers to “look at the lack of measurable goals for postsecondary readiness in the Tennessee Department of Education’s strategic plan and ask how they plan to address this in the future.”

The national ACT average now sits at 20.6, the lowest level in 10 years. It’s important to note that Tennessee calculates its average differently by excluding private school students and using students’ highest scores instead of their most recent ones.

Below, use our searchable, sortable table to find your local high school’s average on the college entrance exam.

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Correction: Nov. 24, 2020: A previous version of this story said no ACT retake is currently scheduled for the Class of 2021. A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said Tennessee is covering the cost of seniors to take the exam again, possibly in December or next spring.

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