Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 8/24/16. Students watch as principal Robin Copp receives a banner from Interim Superintendent Dr. Kirk Kelly at Ooltewah High School Wednesday, August 24, 2016 to celebrate ACT scores being up in Hamilton county.

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Celebrating success: Hamilton County improves ACT scores, but work still remains

Average ACT scores for public high school students: 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016

Hamilton County Schools average: 18.7, 19.0, 18.9, 19.1

State average: 19.1, 19.3 ,19.4, 19.4

Source: Tennessee Department of Education

By The Numbers

Average first-year freshman ACT score:

University of Tennessee at Chattanooga 23

University of Tennessee at Knoxville 27

Chattanooga State 18

Covenant College 26


Schools posting a gain on the ACT in 2016 compared to 2015:

Hamilton County Collegiate High

Ooltewah High School

Sale Creek Middle-High School

East Hamilton Middle-High School

The Howard School

Red Bank High School

East Ridge High School

Lookout Valley Middle-High

Ivy Academy

Hixson High School

Chattanooga High Center for the Creative Arts

Signal Mountain Middle-High School

Hamilton County School's average ACT score: 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016

Brainerd High School: 14.7, 14.7, 14.5, 14.0

Central High School: 17.7, 18.3, 18.3, 18.2

Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy: NA, 13.8, 17.0, 16.8

Chattanooga High Center for the Creative Arts: 22.0, 23.7, 23.3, 23.4

Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences: 21.9, 22.0, 22.4, 22.1

East Hamilton Middle-High School: 19.9, 21.0, 20.3, 20.9

East Ridge High School: 16.6, 16.6, 16.5, 16.7

Hamilton County Collegiate High: 24.1, 23.1, 24.0, 26.0

Hamilton County High School: 15.4, 14.7, 16.3, 15.8

Hamilton County Virtual High School: NA, NA, NA, 17.5

Hixson High School: 18.6, 18.8, 18.0, 18.1

Ivy Academy: NA, 17.6, 17.8, 18.0

Lookout Valley Middle-High School: 18.7, 17.9, 18.6, 18.8

Ooltewah High School: 19.3, 19.7, 19.5, 20.6

Red Bank High School: 17.6, 17.8, 17.8, 18.1

Sale Creek Middle-High School: 20.5, 18.0, 19.0, 19.8

Sequoyah High School: 15.7, 16.0, 16.1, 15.8

Signal Mountain Middle-High School: 22.8, 23.9, 23.9, 24.0

Soddy Daisy High School: 20.2, 20.3, 20.5, 20.3

STEM School Chattanooga: NA, NA, NA, 20.2

The Howard School: 14.7, 14.0, 14.3, 14.8

Tyner Academy: 16.3, 16.2, 15.8, 15.6

Source: ACT reports

Celebrating an uptick in the district's average ACT score, top administrators with the Hamilton County Department of Education presented banners to 11 schools Tuesday, recognizing their 2016 ACT gains.

The Ooltewah High School band played "Rocky Top" from the school's front steps as district leaders stepped off a yellow school bus, carrying balloons and the banner.

Talking to the school's students and teachers, Interim Superintendent Kirk Kelly congratulated them on the progress made by the graduating class of 2016, which posted a 1.1-point gain on the test to score an average of 20.6 out of a possible 36 on the college entrance exam.

"This is a testament of the fantastic things happening at Ooltewah High School and [that] will continue to happen," Kelly said.

Earlier that morning, Kelly told upperclassman at East Hamilton Middle-High that the district's average ACT score reached a 19.1 for the 2015-2016 school year, which is the highest score the district has earned in five years.

"This is really good news for us, and we're moving in the right direction," he said.

Boasting of the district's increase, Kelly told students how Hamilton County Schools outpaced both the state and nation on ACT growth in 2016, and 12 of the district's 22 schools made gains compared to last year.

Though Hamilton County Schools posted a two-tenths of a point increase on the ACT, the district still trails the state average of 19.4 for public school students, which remained flat from 2015 to 2016. Nationally, the average score declined from 21 to 20.8, and more students participated in the test than ever before.

Tennessee is one of 18 states requiring all students to take the test, and nationally, 65 percent of graduates took the ACT in 2016. The ACT tests math, science, reading and English, and a student's composite score is considered during the admissions process at many colleges.

The ACT also measures college readiness, and 16 percent of Hamilton County students met that benchmark, an increase from 13 percent in 2013. Seven of the district's high schools graduated at least 20 percent of their students college-ready in 2016.

To be considered college-ready, students must meet a specific benchmark score in each of the four tested subjects. On the English portion, students must earn an 18 to be considered college-ready, which indicates they are likely able to make a "C" or better on a college composition course. For reading the benchmark for college readiness is set at 22, and suggests readiness for a college-level social-sciences course.

Students must also score a 22 on the math portion of the test to meet the benchmark, which predicts they can pass a college algebra course. For science, a 23 point score is needed to be deemed college-ready, indicating a student will likely succeed in an entry-level biology course.

The ACT measure of college readiness is not the percentage of students to attend college.

The Howard School increased its average ACT score to 14.8, up a half point from 2015. Despite that progress, none of the school's graduates met college-ready benchmarks in 2016. Also, no students attending Hamilton County Virtual School earned college-ready scores. At Brainerd High School and Tyner Academy just 1 percent of 2016 graduates scored college-ready.

"We know there is work to be done to raise both the ACT scores and the college readiness numbers at several of our schools," Robert Sharpe, director of secondary schools for Hamilton County, said in a statement. "However, the overall progress that has been made over the past five years and the focused effort in 2015-2016 indicates we are on the right path."

Statewide, 17 percent of public school students met college-ready benchmarks in all four subjects of the ACT in 2016.

National results also show students are not graduating high school ready for college-level course work, as just 38 percent of seniors across the country hit the college-prepared benchmarks in at least three of the four tested subjects.

The national ACT report also shows there is a relatively wide gulf, by race, in the percentages of graduates hitting three or more of the college-ready benchmarks. Forty-nine percent of white test-takers met the three-or-more benchmark, compared with 11 percent of blacks and 23 percent of Hispanic test-takers. But the gaps between the groups haven't shifted that much, for better or worse, in the past four years.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced Tuesday that 1,300 more Tennessee public school students became eligible for the HOPE scholarship in 2016, by earning a score of 21 or higher. The state's goal is to increase the average ACT score to a 21 by 2020.

In Hamilton County, Signal Mountain Middle/High, Hamilton County Collegiate High, Chattanooga School for Arts and Sciences and Chattanooga High School Center for the Creative Arts were the only schools to have an average ACT score higher than 21.

Tennessee foots the bill for all students to take the test, and now the state is the first in the nation to allow seniors to retake the ACT for free.

David Mansouri, president of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, said providing all students with the opportunity to retake the test is a "promising, sophisticated approach to producing the faster gains in college readiness that the state needs."

"This second chance, when coupled with academic support by districts and high schools, could give thousands of Tennessee juniors who score just a point or two below college-ready the boost they need to be prepared for postsecondary classes," Mansouri said in a statement.

At East Hamilton Tuesday, Kelly encouraged students to take the test more than once, which can help improve their score.

"Let's continue this [progress]," Kelly said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at 423-757-6592 or Follow on Twitter @kendi_and.