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Wisconsin’s high school ACT scores declined slightly in 2019 compared to previous years, though they were still higher than the national average, according to a new report from ACT, the college preparatory nonprofit organization.

Wisconsin’s average ACT score for high school graduates who took the college preparatory test was 20.7. The highest ACT score possible is 36. The state average was down one-tenth of a percent from 2018 and three-tenths of a percent from 2016.

ACT spokesman Ed Colby said average scores are important, but a more useful measure is the percentages of students who meet ACT College Readiness Benchmarks. Those are the minimum scores in English, reading, math and science the organization said give high school students a reasonable chance of success as first-year college students.

Key findings from the ACT report show that 24 percent of graduates in Wisconsin met all four benchmarks in 2019. That’s down from 35 percent in 2018. The largest year-over-year decline was a 3 percent decline in the percentage of graduates meeting English benchmarks.

Wisconsin followed a downward, national trend for students meeting benchmarks. The ACT results showed that across the country, benchmark scores in math and English were the lowest they’ve been in 15 years.

"When we have a percentage of students ready for college-level courses in math and English dropping, it suggests that something may be going on in the schools," Colby said. "Or something might be going on just with students in terms of learning that would indicate a negative trend."

Wisconsin’s results also showed that African American graduates had an average ACT score of 15.7. That was down from 16.3 in 2018 and well below the average score of 21.4 for white graduates this year. Hispanic graduates had an average of 17.7 this year. Native American graduates had an average score of 16.8. Asian American high school graduates scored higher than other students of color in Wisconsin with an average score of 20.6. Colby said Wisconsin’s numbers followed a national trend of lower scores for African American and Hispanic graduates.

"All too many are in situations where they’re in lower income levels in schools that lack the resources, that lack the teachers and perhaps the rigorous curriculum they would need and there are a lot of inequities that exist in our education system, and we believe that has impacted those students," said Colby.

He said ACT encourages students to take "core curriculum" courses, which includes four years of English and three years of math, social studies and science. Colby said students from all backgrounds who are able to do that fare well on the test.

"The one thing that we see is that students who take a rigorous curriculum have significantly higher scores than those that don’t regardless of their race, gender, ethnicity," Colby said. "That is a truism across all groups of students."

Eau Claire Area School District Superintendent Mary Ann Hardebeck said that she suspects the slight decline in ACT scores this year are due to a 2016 requirement that all high school juniors in Wisconsin take the exam.

"I think the decreases are probably, for at least a few years, going to happen as more and more students take the test," Hardebeck said. "But again, I don't think this is a school or a state accountability piece. I think it's more for the individual student."

Hardebeck said she likes to compare results from Eau Claire with other districts in the state rather than with national numbers since many other states don't require all students to take the ACT.

The Wisconsin Department of Public instruction didn't respond to requests for comment on the 2019 ACT results.

Wisconsin Public Radio, © Copyright 2019, Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System and Wisconsin Educational Communications Board.

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