Tennessee students who took the 2011 ACT college entrance exam continued a downward trend and finished second-to-last in the nation in overall scores.
Results also show fewer of this year's seniors will be prepared to take college classes next year, according to an ACT college and career readiness report released Wednesday.
Results of the ACT, the nation's most widely used college entrance exam, have some state officials urging more reforms in education, while others say it will take several years for new, rigorous standards to pay off in test results such as the ACT.
Scores in Hamilton County rose for the first time in several years, but remained below the state average.
On this spring's tests, Tennessee high school students earned an average composite score of 19.5, down from last year's 19.6. Only Mississippi had worse scores. The national average for 2011 composite scores was 21.1.
In each of the past five years, Tennessee's average ACT score remained flat or declined from 2007's average composite of 21.1. English, mathematics, reading and science scores, too, have dropped in the past five years, the report shows.
Tennessee is among eight states that now require all students to take the ACT. Six -- Colorado, Kentucky, Louisiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wyoming -- showed better results than Tennessee. Only Mississippi finished behind.
Making all students take the test may be one of the reasons for Tennessee's low scores, a local principal said.
"It's almost like apples and oranges for awhile," said Red Bank High School Principal Gail Chuy. "If you've got a kid that knows they're not going to college, they're not going to try on the test. And that really brings your average down. It's hard to judge a school, or a state, based on that."
Still, some education officials say the results are alarming.
Jamie Woodson, president and CEO of Tennessee's State Collaborative on Reforming Education, said the data show the urgency and importance of newly enacted education reform efforts.
"Unfortunately, this data isn't totally unexpected. But it is an ever-present reminder and a sobering reminder of how much work we have to do," she said. "It is absolutely a moment for us as a state to have a real gut check and recommit to the reforms we have taken on."
In Georgia, where 47 percent of juniors took the ACT, the average composite score of 20.6. Alabama tested 81 percent of juniors and earned a 20.3 composite score.
Hamilton County Schools tested 2,527 students in 2011, compared to 2,413 in 2010. Below are the subject-area averages and cumulative average:
2011 ----- 2010
18.7 ----- 18.6
18.4 ----- 18.2
18.9 ----- 18.7
18.3 ----- 18.2
18.8 ----- 18.8
Source: Hamilton County Department of Education
ACT reports that fewer Tennessee students are meeting college-ready benchmarks -- the minimum score needed in a subject to indicate a 50 percent chance of obtaining a B or higher in a corresponding college class, or about a 75 percent chance of obtaining a C or higher.
Fewer than half of Tennessee's students are prepared for college algebra, social science and biology courses, while 58 percent are prepared for a college-level English composition class -- figures well below the national averages.
But many of those unprepared kids still want to go to college.
While taking the test, 74 percent of students said they aspired to earn a bachelor's or graduate degree, while an additional 13 percent said they wanted to obtain associate's or vocational degrees.
"These results are unacceptable, and we have to do more to ensure that our high school students' academic results align with their aspirations," Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said in a statement.
While the state's scores are sliding, local educators point to encouraging results.
Robert Sharpe, Hamilton County assistant superintendent for secondary education, said the county's ACT scores are trending upward.
All Hamilton County's 2011 scores are below state averages -- the composite average score was 18.7, compared to the state average of 19.5 -- but Sharpe said the composite score as well as scores in English, reading and math are on the rise.
"We're encouraged overall with our district results," he said. "This is the first time we have shown an upward trend in several years."
Hixson High School Principal Christine Couch said her staff constantly monitors ACT results because they're considered a national benchmark. But because all students were required to take the test starting in 2010, that year will be considered new baseline data, she said.
And while no one wants to place 49th out of 50 states, Couch said recent reforms should soon result in improved ACT scores.
"Obviously, if you hear that statistic about the state, it sounds discouraging. Data is data," she said. "But I think we're doing the right things to change that."