More high school students are taking college-preparation exams, but the results remain very much the same as in years past, putting most who take the tests in good position for college.

ACT scores released throughout the country today indicate a 9 percent increase in students taking the exam, and the majority of scores reaching college-readiness benchmarks.

In Utah, 22,598 students took the ACT — which measures academic achievement in English, math, reading, science and writing. They make up a part of the nearly 1.5 million who sat for the test nationwide.

"The growth in the number of test-takers is good news, as we hope it will translate into increased college access," said Richard L. Ferguson, ACT's chief executive officer and chairman of the board. "More students appear to be considering college, an important preliminary step to college attendance."

Utah students continued a trend of scoring higher than their

cohorts across the country, receiving above-average scores in all four topics, with an average composite score of 21.8. The score is better than last year's results, while the national average fell one-tenth of a point, to 21.1.

Twenty-five percent of Utah students met the benchmarks in all four subjects, which is a score derived from the performance of students already in college and indicates a 50 percent chance of obtaining a B or C average in actual college courses.

Compared to 2007 results, more students are more ready for English, math, reading and science coming out of Utah schools.

"It's gratifying to see the arrow moving in the right direction across the academic board," said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Patti Harrington. "This is especially so considering that two-thirds of Utah students take the ACT."

Only three states reported all high school students taking the exam, offered by a not-for-profit organization that works to achieve education and workplace success. Of the Utah students who did take the test, 60 percent of them reported taking a heavier load of courses in high school, which is 15 percent more than last year.

"We must send the message out loud and clear to students and their parents that taking the right course work is the key to preparing for college and workforce training programs," Ferguson said.

The pool of national test-takers continues to become more diverse and more reflective of the U.S. population. However, in Utah, performance gaps between racial groups continue to exist, with Native American and black students scoring an average of 17.9, Hispanic students scoring 18.9, Asian and Pacific Islanders scoring 21.3 and white students scoring 22.0.

"I am pleased to see some slight improvement in the preparation of high school students for a college education," said Dave Buhler, interim commissioner of higher education in Utah. "However, we still have a long way to go to have the number of students prepared to really compete in today's world economy."

Overall, Utah students scored highest in reading, then science, English and math. The majority of them surpassed the benchmarks and showed improvement over years past.

Harrington said she hopes the rising trend continues.

"We'll be watching especially closely results for the Class of 2011 — this upcoming school year's sophomores — who will be subject to the increased graduation requirements that the Utah State Board of Education approved two years ago," Harrington said.

Officials believe the test is becoming more widespread, even required by some states for all 11th-graders. Ferguson said the testing programs being implemented throughout the country can only help increase college access and readiness, "offering opportunities to new groups of students who might not have considered going to college in the past."