Miss. ACT composite improves, black students at 10-year high

Published 8:30 pm Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The ACT college entrance exam scores of Mississippi’s high school class of 2006 showed a slight improvement over last year, but overall the results were among the worst in the South.

Average composite scores on the exam, which measures students’ readiness for college-level work, rose to 18.8 from 18.7 in 2005. At 93 percent, Mississippi was among the states with the highest percentage of students taking the test.

Nationally, the average composite score was 21.1 percent, up from 20.9 percent in 2005 and the largest score increase in 20 years. ACT scores range from 1 to 36.

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The scores in individual categories reflect that more Mississippi students have college-ready skills in English and reading, said Ed Colby, a spokesman for the independent, nonprofit ACT.

Colby said 57 percent exceeded the benchmarks set by ACT in English and 35 percent in reading, posting a 2 percent increase over last year in each category. However, only 12 percent met the benchmark in science and 18 percent in math.

“What this means is that the large majority of these students who took the ACT are likely to struggle in college algebra and college biology,” Colby said.

There remains a significant gap in ACT performance among the races. The composite score of black students in Mississippi was 16.5 compared to 20.3 for white students. The average composite for Asian Americans was 21.0 and 19.6 for Hispanics.

Still, the 2006 scores for black students were the highest in at least 10 years, said Alan Richard of the Southern Regional Education Board, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that advises education leaders in 16 states.

Other states with a 10-year high ACT composite score for black students were Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee and West Virginia.

“Historically, we haven’t done well by all groups of students in the South. We can’t forget that,” said Richard.

He said the number of poor students in the region is on the rise. In Mississippi, the percent of students receiving free or reduced lunch increased to 71 percent in 2004 from 63 percent in 1990, he said.

“Nearly 3 out of 4 kids in Mississippi are low income. Low-income students don’t often score very well on tests,” Richard said.

Mississippi is on the bottom when compared with its neighboring Southern states. The composite average in Tennessee was 20.7; in Alabama it was 20.2 and in Louisiana it was 20.1. However, the figures can be misleading because the percentage of students taking the test varies from state to state.

Colby said ACT recommends students take the most challenging courses available to prepare for college and work force training. He said Mississippi’s scores could indicate students are not taking challenging courses or the courses do not teach the high-level skills students need.

Lee Taylor, deputy superintendent of Greenwood Public Schools, said the difficulty is convincing students of the importance of such courses as algebra. Taylor said the district has made changes within its curriculum to drive up ACT scores, aligning courses with national standards.

“You want to build instruction on how what they’re learning has an impact on them every day,” Taylor said.