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Ravell Call, Deseret News
Olympus High School student Marty Shaeffer, right, studies math with tutor Geoff Burlew at the Huntington Learning Center in Draper, Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015, in preparation for the ACT test.

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah saw a drop in its composite ACT score from 20.8 last year to 20.2 for this year's high school graduating class.

That drop pushed Utah from first to fifth place among states that administer the ACT to all of its students, which now includes 13 states, and Utah maintained its national ranking from last year of 40th overall, according to data released Wednesday.

That means only 23 percent of the class of 2015 stands a good chance of earning a B in all of their college math, science, English and social studies courses, according to state Superintendent Brad Smith.

Participation in the ACT, however, improved by 14 percent in the state, which provides funding to administer the test to all students during their junior year of high school. Utah's school population, however, increased by only 1.7 percent. With this year's scores, 40,629 students took the test.

"While I'm pleased to see we're doing a better job of getting more Utah students to take the ACT, there's no doubt there is work ahead of us in getting more of those students fully prepared to succeed in college and careers," Smith said in a prepared statement. "We will be working with our friends in higher education to look more deeply into this data to see how we can improve outcomes for all of our students."

The ACT, which stands for American College Testing, is an exam required for most incoming college students nationwide. The test includes college-readiness benchmarks in reading, math, science and English that help determine a student's eligibility for admissions and scholarships, as well as course placement once they enroll in college.

The scores represent an achievement benchmark required for students to have a 50 percent chance of earning a B in college courses, or a 75 percent chance of earning a C. For English, the benchmark score is 18; for math and reading, the score is 22; and for science, the score is 23.

In Utah, 59 percent of Utah juniors met the benchmark in English, 34 percent met the math and science benchmarks, and 44 percent met the reading benchmark. Utah overall scored 19.4 in English, 19.8 in math, 20.9 in reading and 20.4 in science.

The national composite score for the ACT was 21, and none of the 13 states that administer the test to all students met that score.

David Crandall, chairman of the Utah State Board of Education, said Utah is not alone in experiencing a dip in scores as participation in the test increases. But the class of 2015 will form a "good, solid baseline from which we can move forward," he said.

"We have a broader cross section of students actually taking the test. It's not surprising with that broader cross section to see a dip in scores," Crandall said. "We're not happy with that or satisfied with that, but at least it gives us a better idea of where we are so we can move up from there and improve."

As more students take the ACT, Utah's scores are becoming more inclusive of populations that are traditionally underrepresented on college campuses, Crandall said. It sheds another light on the performance gap between ethnic majority and minority students, which somewhat mirrors a national trend.

Collectively, Utah students had a composite score of 20.2, but the composite score was 16.3 for black students, 15.8 for American Indian students, 21.2 for white students, 17.2 for Hispanic students, 20.6 for Asian students and 17 for Pacific islander students.

McKell Withers, superintendent of the Salt Lake City School District, said as Utah classrooms become more diverse, educational barriers like poverty and English as a second language become increasingly important to address.

"Poverty is still the most consistent barrier to learning for all kids, regardless of race or background. Then language is another factor. Then there is absolutely still gaps that you can track based on race and ethnicity," Withers said. "And I believe that's connected with expectations. The school, the system, the community, the families, all of the above haven't accurately portrayed high expectations for all kids in all cultures."

Utah is now in its fifth year since new academic standards were adopted to raise the expectation for students in preparing for education after high school. And schools are in their third year since those standards were fully implemented, Crandall said.

He and other education leaders expect Utah's ACT scores to improve as students and teachers become even more accustomed to the new "college-ready" standards.

"We're obviously in this for the long haul, and we expect improvement over time," Crandall said. "It does take awhile to implement those standards and see the long-term impact. So far, we're positive that we're moving in the right direction."

Having more rigorous standards will also help minorities, Withers said.

"When you have higher expectations for all kids, the performance of all kids will go up over time," he said. "More rigorous standards and expectations will help impact that."

Higher education leaders, however, are encouraging high schoolers to go beyond what's required for graduation by taking four years of math and English, and at least three years of lab-based science courses.

On average, 58 percent of students who took four years of math met the ACT's benchmark, compared with the state average of 34 percent. The same was true for science, where 65 percent of students who took three years of lab-based science met or surpassed the ACT benchmark, compared with 34 percent statewide.

"Course taking is a big determining factor in college readiness," said David Buhler, commissioner of higher education. "These data this year once again back up the importance of course taking in high school (for) college readiness."

High schoolers are currently required to take four years of language arts, and that subject produced the highest percentage of students meeting the ACT benchmark at 59 percent.

Buhler said administering the ACT statewide may also help students who haven't considered going to college redefine their academic goals.

"I'm sure there are some students who weren't necessarily thinking of college, but then they take the ACT, and if they've done pretty well, then it helps them maybe decide that college is something they should do," he said. "So that's very positive."

Email: [email protected]; Twitter: MorganEJacobsen