College and career readiness has been a focus of Tennessee’s education policy in the 21st century, but declines in the state’s average ACT score and graduation rate have been disappointments in 2020. | Karen Pulfer Focht/Chalkbeat
Tennessee’s average ACT score declined slightly for a second straight year and sits almost a point below the national average, according to results released Friday.
Public school students in the Class of 2020 finished with an overall average of 19.9 on a scale of 36, down from 20 last year and 20.2 the year before. This year’s national average was 20.6.
The dips, while small, keep Tennessee on a downward trajectory after six years of slow but steady growth on the college entrance exam.
While Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn characterized the showing as “relatively stable,” the results are a disappointment for a state that had been closing in on former Gov. Bill Haslam’s goal of reaching the previous national average of 21 by 2020. Just three years earlier, the state celebrated that its ACT average continued to tick upward — in defiance of a national slump — as Tennessee provided students with a free do-over for any student who wanted to retake the exam.
Haslam’s successor, Gov. Bill Lee, has invested more money in vocational education programs to get students ready for college and career. His administration has not identified improving ACT performance as a major goal.
Equally concerning to the dip in scores was an across-the-board drop in the percentage of Tennessee students taking the ACT test after record-high participation last year.
About 97% of students participated, down a full percentage point from the Class of 2019. Among historically underserved groups of black, Hispanic, and economically disadvantaged students, the rates went down 2%. Participation by English language learners dropped from 97% to 91%.
The declines in both scores and participation were not due to disruptions in testing or schooling caused by the coronavirus. Most graduating seniors took the exam during their junior year and had the option of retaking it in the fall of their senior year — months before the pandemic emerged in the U.S.
However, this year’s results don’t bode well for next year’s graduating seniors, whose testing was significantly disrupted by COVID-19. The Class of 2021 took their exams this fall after the ACT’s springtime administration was canceled. Currently, no retake is scheduled.
The latest ACT results represent the second round of recent data showing a decline in postsecondary readiness in Tennessee.
In September, the department reported a dip in Tennessee’s high school graduation rate, even as the state relaxed requirements for seniors to receive their diplomas during the pandemic.
The backsliding in both areas drew a sharp rebuke Friday from JC Bowman, who leads the Professional Educators of Tennessee.
“In less than two years, under this current administration, there has been a lack of focus on postsecondary readiness and measurable objectives,” he said in a statement.
Bowman urged state policymakers to “look at the lack of measurable goals for postsecondary readiness in the Tennessee Department of Education’s strategic plan and ask how they plan to address this in the future.”
Below, use our searchable, sortable table to find your local high school’s average on the college entrance exam.