Missouri ACT scores inching up

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Missouri students again scored higher than the national average on a major college entrance exam, according to data released by not-for-profit ACT.

The state and nationwide data from 2004 also shows that students who take tougher high school courses perform better on the ACT, intended to be a gauge of how students will fare when they reach college.

The Missouri average composite score of 21.5, out of 36, also is slightly higher than what Missouri high school students scored last year, at 21.4, and the same average score as in 2002. The national average for 2004 is 20.9.

Though the new data released Tuesday did not include breakdowns of individual school districts, students in local high schools have typically scored higher than both state and national averages in recent years.

In both 2002 and 2003, Jackson High School's average ACT composite scores were 22.5, higher than the 21.4 and 21.5 state average during those years and the 20.8 national average.

Cape Girardeau's Central High School also exceeded the state and national scores in 2003, with an average composite score of 21.7. Scott City High School students averaged a 21.2 composite score last year.

"We do a lot of things to help students with those scores," said Rick McClard, principal at Jackson High School. "It's a good indicator of how we're doing at the state and national level because it's the same test given everywhere."

McClard said his school recently started a special ACT prep course for juniors and seniors trying to improve their scores on the test.

"We also have more students taking the test now," McClard said. "We've always had the top students take it, but that was the minority of graduates. Now something like two-thirds of students take the ACT, and they're doing a good job with it."

Missouri students who completed a college-preparatory core curriculum, established by the ACT as four years of English and three years each of science, social studies and math, fared better. About 58 percent of Missouri students who took the ACT also completed the core curriculum and scored a 22.6 on average. Those who did not scored 19.7.

Staff writer Callie Clark contributed to this report.

Both figures are slightly higher than scores posted last year on the ACT, which includes sections on math, English, reading and science.

The results may bolster efforts of education officials studying whether requirements to graduate from high school in Missouri should be more stringent.

"Preparation is key to success in higher education," Quentin Wilson, commissioner of the Missouri Department of Higher Education, said Tuesday. "Higher education is a virtual requirement for the careers and lifestyles that most students plan for. Tests like the ACT are a gatekeeper into college."

A task force is working on several issues related to the state's public high school education system, including graduation requirements.

The state now requires 22 units of credit for high school graduation. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education found that nearly two-thirds of schools that answered a survey require no more than 26 units.

The state's Coordinating Board for Higher Education offers a recommended college-track curriculum, which includes more math, English and social studies than the basic graduation requirements.

Higher education officials are discussing whether to urge schools to make a college-prep course load the standard, but give students the option to drop down to more basic courses, rather than the other way around.

Education Commissioner Kent King said the ACT data adds to evidence that tougher courses are important, and the task force is studying the idea, but said just adding to the total hours isn't enough.

"I want us to think about more than just numbers of courses. What is in those courses is crucial," he said.

A report earlier this year from the Commission on the Future of Higher Education found that fewer students would need remedial help in college if high schools had more rigorous graduation requirements.

About 81 percent of Missouri students who took the ACT exam this year were white, while 9 percent were black.

Overall, Missouri students of all races fared better than the national average. From 2000 through 2004, Missouri students did as well as or better than their peers nationally on the test.

The exam is more popular in some states than others. In Missouri, 70 percent of graduates, or 42,862, took the exam this year, up slightly from last year. The national participation rate is 40 percent.

Staff writer Callie Clark contributed to this report.

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