Utah students had the nation's highest average ACT score in 2014 when compared among the 12 states where all high school juniors take the test.

SALT LAKE CITY — For the second consecutive year, Utah students earned the nation's highest ACT scores when compared with states where all students participate in the test.

A total of 12 states, including Utah, tested all high school juniors in 2014, up from nine states in 2013.

Despite the increased competition, Utah stayed on top with an average composite score of 20.8, according to data released Wednesday by ACT.

"All Utah students, their parents and their teachers can take pride in this achievement,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Martell Menlove said in a prepared statement.

Utah's average score of 20.8 was slightly ahead of the 20.7 the state earned in 2013, while the number of students taking the test also increased from 34,514 to 35,074.

The state fell below the national average of 21, but educators point out that where participation is not universal, college-bound students typically self-select to take the ACT, resulting in a potentially inflated score.

The ACT reported that nationally, 57 percent of students took the test in 2014, compared to the 100 percent participation of Utah and the other 11 full-participation states.

"What makes this report so significant is that it includes all Utah students," Menlove said. "The number of Utah Hispanic students taking the ACT has nearly tripled in the past five years. The number of Pacific Islander students taking the test has nearly doubled in four years. These scores represent our school population as a whole, not just those who plan to attend college."

But the data from ACT also show the state has room to grow on college preparation.

The ACT sets college readiness benchmarks in each of the test's four subjects — English, math, reading and science — based on the likelihood that a student would earn a passing grade in a college-level course.

In Utah, one out of four students met all four college-readiness benchmarks and 63 percent of students met the ACT's benchmark score in English.

But fewer than half met the benchmarks for the remaining subjects, including 43 percent in reading, 39 percent in math and 36 percent in science.

Those numbers are largely in keeping with the nation, with Utah falling between 1 and 4 percentage points below the national average, which again is potentially inflated by selective participation.

"It’s a positive thing that we’re tracking nationally and that we’re on the top of that group of ACT states," Utah System of Higher Education spokeswoman Melanie Heath said. "Nationally, we aren’t that far off. But it does show that we do have some work to do."

The state has a goal of two-thirds of Utah's adults earning a postsecondary degree or certificate by the year 2020, and Heath said that higher education officials are involved in a number of outreach programs aimed at facilitating college enrollment and degree completion.

But she added that to be truly college ready, an incoming freshman would likely reach all four of the ACT's readiness benchmarks.

"That's something that only a quarter of our students did," she said.

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