Thousands of Tennessee students may wonder why they have to take the ACT when they have no plans to go to college, but Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Dr. Bryan Johnson says the scores give both the district and the state critical information on student readiness.
"You really get a picture of all learners," he told this page. "It [also] gives you a true picture of the entire district."
The state Department of Education announced last week that Tennessee, despite being only the 15th largest state by population, led the nation in ACTs administered — 178,000 — since June 2020.
Johnson said since the state mandated several years ago that 95% of students must take the ACT or SAT, and since the state pays for students to take the ACT as juniors and for a retake as seniors, the state's ranking is not surprising.
Indeed, he says this year's graduating class of seniors is the last that can graduate without taking one of the two college and career readiness tests. Next year, he said, the ACT becomes a requirement for graduation.
And while the ACT is the same for students throughout the country, some states do not mandate it and recommend it for only college-bound students. So comparing scores from one state, where only college-bound students take it, with those in states where everyone takes it, can be like comparing apples to oranges.
In 2020, the national composite ACT score was 20.6. In Tennessee, it was 19.9 and in Hamilton County 19.7.
The goal, under the state's accountability model, is 21.
"[E]arning a 21 on the ACT is one of the ways that students can indicate that they are prepared for life after high school and a seamless entry into postsecondary education, the workplace, or the military," a state Department of Education news release said.
"That [score] became the North Star for most of the systems across our state," Johnson said.
Hamilton County, he said, looks demographically a lot like the state as a whole, with urban, suburban and rural students, and with a diversity of racially, ethnically and disadvantaged students. So the district's scores have skewed close to the state's for several years.
"We're always pushing to close that gap [to 21]," Johnson said.
The scores from the ACTs in which Tennessee led the nation in taking won't be revealed until later this year, but scores from the 2019-2020 school year show Hamilton County closest to the national norm in reading but lagging in English, math and science.
The district's 20.3 score in reading was .9 less than the national 21.2 mark, while it lagged behind national marks by 1.1 in English and math, and 1.4 in science.
Compared to the state, Hamilton County trailed by .1 in math and science, .2 in reading and .7 in English.
"We see a lot of correlation with the state," Johnson said.
Among Hamilton County high schools, where comparable information was available, nine increased their composite ACT score from the 2018-2019 school year, 10 decreased their scores and one stayed the same.
"With the focus on more test takers," said Johnson, "that's about what we expected."
During the COVID-marred year, 10 Hamilton County high schools fell slightly in participation rates for the test, and two increased in participation. Eight schools — Chattanooga School for the Creative Arts, Lookout Valley, Sale Creek, Sequoyah, Signal Mountain, Hamilton County STEM School, Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy and Ivy Academy — had 100% participation rates.
A positive trend showed that nine high schools had fewer students than in the 2018-2019 year score lower than 19 on the ACT, while only seven had more score below 19.
Among the four test areas, Hamilton County high schools improved most in reading (with 12 increasing their scores) and science (with 11 increasing). In math, eight increased their scores, nine decreased and three stayed the same. In English, only seven increased their scores, 11 decreased and two stayed the same.
"Every year there is a different cohort of students," Johnson said. "They're beginning to become more comfortable [with the fact of the test] — that this is part of the expectation."
The superintendent acknowledges that "college is not appropriate for everybody," but he says the push toward all students taking the ACT or SAT has been a decade or longer move toward making state assessments more challenging, toward matching their rigor with that of the ACT, and toward learning in what ways the ACT can be more of a measure of post-secondary readiness.
"It's a good thing from that standpoint," Johnson said.