ACT predicts how well students will do in college based on scores received in its four subject areas. Students who meet ACT's benchmark are estimated to have a 50 percent chance of getting a B or higher or about a 75 percent chance of obtaining a C or higher in the corresponding entry-level college course.
College course ACT subject-area test ACT benchmark
Source: ACT College Readiness Benchmark
The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga requires all incoming freshmen to have a composite ACT score of 18 with a 2.85 GPA or a composite ACT of 21 with a 2.3 high school GPA.
The University of Tennessee in Knoxville has no set ACT minimum requirement. But the middle 50 percent of the 2010 fall admitted class had ACT scores ranging between 24 and 29.
To qualify for the Tennessee Hope lottery scholarship, students must have at least a 21 ACT score or a 3.0 GPA.
Source: College websites
An aspiring chef, Dominique Burney knows he doesn't need a high score on the ACT for his dreams to come true. But he still puts in hours of work after school each week to ensure that he scores better the next time he takes the test.
Burney, a senior at Brainerd High School, has a 3.1 grade point average, but he scored only a 13 of 36 on his first ACT attempt. The culinary schools he plans to apply to don't set guidelines on ACT scores like colleges do.
"I just want to be well-rounded. I want to have a good GPA and a good ACT score so I have better chances," he said.
So he, along with about 50 other Brainerd students, puts in 90 minutes after school four days a week working on ACT preparation and other college-readiness lessons.
That's just one effort that Hamilton County Schools is undertaking to improve an average ACT score that has barely budged over a five-year period. This year's average composite ACT score improved from 18.6 to 18.7, but that's a full point below the 2007 and 2008 average score of 19.7, according to the Tennessee Report Card.
During that same five-year period, Hamilton County's average high school graduation rate has increased significantly. The report card shows a 81.7 percent graduation rate for 2011, well above the 75.1 percent graduation rate in 2007.
This disconnect between the two measurements is best witnessed at Howard School of Academics and Technology. There, the graduation rate rose to 88.3 percent in 2011, up from 2010's rate of 68.6 percent. But with a school composite score of 14.3, the school's ACT score was at a five-year low in 2011.
But it's not just an issue for Howard; officials notice the trend systemwide.
"We're very concerned," said Kirk Kelley, director of accountability and testing for the Hamilton County Department of Education. "That is an area we need to address. But we are pleased that we have more students completing the process and actually receiving a diploma."
It's important to note that more students now are taking the ACT than were five years ago because, since 2010, the state has required all juniors to take the test.
Still, Kelley said, "there's no excuse for those numbers."
The ACT is the most widely used college entrance exam in the United States and considered one of the best indicators of future college success. In 2011, Hamilton County ACT scores on English, math, reading and science all improved or remained flat, though those scores are below state averages and local scores from 2007, 2008 and 2009, according to the state report card.
State average ACT scores in 2011 on all four subject areas were down or remained steady from 2010 scores, the report card shows.
Dan Challener, president of the Public Education Foundation, said he sees it as a positive sign that Hamilton County had modest improvement because more students took the test in 2011.
He noted that state and federal governments have placed greater emphasis on high school graduation rates, which are used to determine whether a school is making Adequate Yearly Progress under No Child Left Behind.
"I think, consequently, high schools have focused a good bit of attention and resources on improving graduation rates," Challener said.
Jeff Gagne, policy director at the Southern Regional Education Board, said a direct comparison of high school graduation rates and ACT scores isn't necessarily meaningful. The ACT is testing how well a student would do in college, he said, while a diploma signifies that a student has met state standards.
The Atlanta-based board is a nonprofit policy group aimed at improving public education in 16 states across the Southeast, including Tennessee and Georgia.
Gagne said it's a good sign that more kids are staying in school and receiving diplomas, but because many future jobs are expected to require some form of post-secondary education, states are now looking more closely at college readiness, he said.
"Everyone's talking about college readiness as the next kind of big step," he said. "It's not only about getting them out of high school."
David Mansouri, spokesman for the Tennessee State Collaborative on Education Reform, said students are improving scores on state tests in earlier grades -- something that eventually should help improve performance at the high school level.
But even then, he said, it's important the state remains focused on preparing students for college or careers.
"We've not done a good-enough job ensuring kids are prepared when they leave high school," he said.
Improving scores on the ACT is now a systemwide focus in Hamilton County.
Humanities Coordinator Gloria Moore, who oversees ACT preparation work for the school district, said coaches in each high school are working to relay the importance of the test and ways to improve performance.
"They are sort of the ACT expert in their building," Moore said.
The coaches are charged with three goals: improving reading scores, teaching teachers to incorporate higher-level thinking and vocabulary into the curriculum and teaching basic test prep skills.
Moore said the best way to increase scores isn't necessarily through test preparation but an immersion of rigorous course work. The ACT should be viewed with just as much seriousness as state assessments, because the ACT is a "gateway test."
"The reality is that's the test that matters for our kids' future," she said. "What I make on the state test a year after I graduate, quite frankly, that isn't going to matter to me as a student. It doesn't carry anything with it that does anything for me."