H amilton County students who took the ACT college entrance exam in 2012 improved their scores in every subject area. That's an exciting and welcome report. The not so positive news is that despite the documented improvement, county students still trail their peers across the state and the nation. Of equal concern is that Tennessee — despite documented statewide improvement — is tied for second-to-last in the nation in overall ACT scores.
Hamilton County had an average composite score of 18.9 on the 2012 test. That's an improvement over 18.7 in 2011. Tennessee's average composite score for 2012 is 19.7, up from 19.5 last year. Georgia students improved as well, scoring an average of 20.7 in 2012, an increase from 20.6 the previous year. The national average, though, is 21.1. Minnesota, the state with the highest average composite score posted a 22.8. Tennessee and Georgia students clearly have academic ground to make up.
Even so, the 2012 scores in both states can be viewed in a positive light.
True, the scores, particularly in Tennessee, are low, but they are an improvement over those in the past. Incremental improvement in scores over several years rather than a huge jump in a single year is the best measure of progress when it comes to the ACT. That's happening in both Tennessee and Georgia. Besides, given the number of students who take the test annually, it is unlikely that a system or a state could produce a big gain in scores in a single year.
It is instructive to examine the test results. Generally speaking, the scores here, across the state and elsewhere in the nation reflect significant performance gaps between groups of students. In many instances, affluent students score better than economically disadvantaged students and white and Asian pupils fare better than black and Asian students. Closing those gaps won't be easy. Better teachers and improved curricula will help but that can't overcome societal issues — a preponderance of single-parent households in some school districts, for example — that put many students and schools at a disadvantage when it comes to test-taking and academic achievement.
Still, the widely taken ACT provides a valuable service. Since it is a uniform national test, it offers a reasonably reliable state-to-state comparison of student performance. It also serves as a fair predictor of how well an individual student is prepared for college.
Using those measuring sticks, it is safe to say that Tennessee — tied with Arizona and the District of Columbia for second-to-last in the nation for overall scores and ahead of only Mississippi — and Georgia students are at a disadvantage. If the ACT scores are to be believed, they will find it hard to compete with their peers for good-paying jobs that now require high levels of learning and technical expertise, or to find success at demanding two- and four-year colleges and universities.
The ACT scores for 2012 are mixed blessing. They indicate progress in both local and state schools, but indicate that improvement is needed if they are to approach equality with those in much of the rest of the nation.