College Readiness

Tennessee students improve slightly on ACT in a year when national scores backslide

PHOTO: Getty Images/Virojt Changyencham

Tennessee’s average ACT score ticked up slightly this year, again landing above 20 and defying national trends on the college entrance exam, according to results released on Wednesday.

On a scale of 1 to 36, the state’s public school students who graduated in 2018 scored an average of 20.2, up from 20.1 the previous year, as a record number of Tennesseans took the test.

While the change was statistically insignificant, the showing was still an encouragement for the state, which last year pushed its average over 20 for the first time ever. It also moves Tennessee closer to reaching its goal of achieving a 21 average by 2020.

This year’s national average of 20.8 was down from 21 in 2017, but included all of this year’s graduates, not just those in public schools as reported in Tennessee.

And while those national numbers showed troubling declines in most subjects — including a 20-year low in math — Tennessee students achieved nominal gains in math, English, and reading, while landing the same in science.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the upticks were significant given that more than 2,000 additional Tennessee students took the exam, bringing the state’s participation rate to 97 percent for the Class of 2018.

“The ACT provides an opportunity for our students to show they are college and career ready, and seeing a higher average score at the same time more students are taking the test is a true testament to the work that is happening in Tennessee schools,” McQueen said in a statement.

She attributed the year’s scores to higher expectations under new academic standards aimed at deeper teaching and learning — one of the hallmarks of the state’s K-12 overhaul beginning in 2011.

Improving ACT performance has been a major objective for Tennessee, where college entrance scores mostly languished before launching a targeted strategy in 2015 to up its game and adding the national test as a measure of district accountability. Since 2011, the state’s average score has increased by more than a full point.

Tennessee is the only state that pays for its students to take the exam twice and — unlike the national report that is based on most recent test performance — Tennessee uses students’ best scores from multiple tries, just as colleges do when determining admittance, course placement, or scholarship awards.

The Class of 2018 was the second group to get a free do-over on the ACT, with more than 80 percent of students taking advantage of that opportunity in the fall of their senior year. Of those, nearly 40 percent increased their overall score.

“With increased ACT access and participation, our state has sent a strong signal to the country that Tennessee is committed to providing opportunities for our students’ futures,” McQueen said.

Public school students who earn composite scores of 21 or higher become eligible for state lottery-funded HOPE scholarships, which can be used to attend public or private colleges or universities in Tennessee. This year, 27,249 graduates exceeded that bar, 1,400-plus more than last year.

Tennessee also reported that students who are economically disadvantaged improved at a faster rate than any other student group, with 23 percent earning a score of 21 or higher, compared with 21.2 percent in 2017.

Among urban districts, students in Memphis (17.7) and Nashville (18.9) scored slightly lower than in 2017, while those in Knoxville (21.4) improved and the average score in Chattanooga (19.9) was unchanged.

For a third year in a row, Germantown Municipal District had the highest score in the state by posting a 25.9 average, up from 25.5 the previous  year. Additionally, Moore County Schools showed the largest gains in Tennessee, raising its average by 1.7 points to 20.6.

Below is a searchable chart to look up your district’s average composite score.

Tennessee 2018 ACT scores by district

Chalkbeat graphic artist Sam Parks contributed to this story.

Correction: Oct. 31, 2018: A previous version of this story said more than 1,400 graduates scored 21 or higher to earn the HOPE scholarship. The correct number is 27,249, which is 1,400-plus more than last year. 

Class of 2018

Some Colorado schools see big gains in grad rates. Find yours in our searchable database.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools
Aurora West College Preparatory Academy graduates of 2018. The school had a 100 percent graduation rate.

Two metro-area school districts, Westminster and Aurora, recently in the state’s crosshairs for their low-performance, posted significant increases in their graduation rates, according to 2018 numbers released Wednesday.

Westminster, a district that got off the state’s watchlist just last year, had 67.9 percent of its students graduate on time, within four years of starting high school. That was a jump of 10 percentage points from its 57.8 percent graduation rate in 2017.

District officials credit their unique model of competency-based education, which does away with grade levels and requires students prove they mastered content before moving up a level. In previous years, district officials pointed to rising graduation rates that Colorado also tracks for students who take five, six or seven years, but officials say it was bound to impact their 4-year rates as well.

“We saw an upward tick across the board this past year,” said Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson, referring to state test results and other data also showing achievement increasing. “I think this is one more indicator.”

Swanson said the high school has also focused recently on increasing attendance, now at almost 90 percent, and increasing students’ responsibility for their own learning.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

In Aurora schools, 76.5 percent of students graduated on time in 2018 — a jump of almost 9 percentage points from the 67.6 percent rate of the class of 2017.

“We’re excited these rates demonstrate momentum in our work,” Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said.

He attributed the increased graduation rates to “better practice, better pedagogy, and better policy.”

One policy that made a difference for the district is a change in law that now allows districts to count students as graduates the year they complete their high school requirements, even if they are enrolled in one of Colorado’s programs to take college courses while doing a fifth year of high school.

According to a state report two years ago, Aurora had 65 students enrolled in this specific concurrent enrollment program who previously wouldn’t have been counted in four-year graduation rates. Only the Denver district has a larger number of such students. Aurora officials said 147 students are enrolled this year in the program.

Those students are successful, Munn said, and shouldn’t be counted against the district’s on-time graduation rates.

Aurora’s previously rising graduation rates helped it dodge corrective state action. But its improvement this year included a first: One high school, Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, had 100 percent of its seniors graduate in 2018.

The school enrolls students in grades six through 12 in northwest Aurora, the most diverse part of the district. Of the more than 1,000 students, 89 percent qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty.

“This incredible accomplishment demonstrates the strong student-focused culture we have created at Aurora West,” said Principal Taya Tselolikhina in a written statement. “When you establish high expectations and follow up with high levels of support, every student is able to shape a successful future.”

Statewide, the four-year graduation rate once again inched higher, and gaps between the graduation rate of white students and students of color again decreased. But this time, the gaps narrowed even as all student groups increased their graduation rates.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

The rising trend wasn’t universal. In some metro area school districts, graduation rates fell in 2018. That includes Adams 14, the district that is now facing outside management after years of low performance.

The tiny school district of Sheridan, just southwest of Denver, saw a significant drop in graduation rates. In 2018, 64.7 percent of students graduated within four years, down from 72.7 percent of the class of 2017.

Look up four-year graduation rates for your individual school or district in our databases below.

Districts here:


School accountability

Concerned with state A-F grading system, Vitti says he’ll lobby for Detroit to keep its own plan

Detroit school district leaders will lobby state leaders to allow for a Detroit-only letter grading system to hold district and charter schools in the city accountable. But if that isn’t successful, the district plans to create its own system.

This plan, announced Tuesday night by Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, comes almost a month after lame-duck lawmakers in the Michigan Legislature passed a controversial A-F letter grading system for the whole state. A Detroit-only system would gives schools far more credit for improvement in test scores than the statewide system does, and it would account for an issue — poverty — that disproportionately affects city schools. 

That state system, which former Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law in late December, halted efforts that had already been underway by district and charter leaders to create an A-F system that takes the specific issues facing Detroit schools into account. That local system had been mandated by a 2016 law and only applied to the city.

Vitti’s announcement comes as state education officials from the Michigan Department of Education have raised concerns that the A-F system OK’d by lawmakers violates federal education law and could potentially cost the state federal money.

Vitti laid out a plan to first lobby new state leaders, including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Republican leaders of the House and Senate, to allow for local grade systems.

If successful, Vitti said, that system that had been in the works would be adopted for district and charter schools.

If unsuccessful, Vitti said, the district would go it alone, without charter schools.

“We need to start thinking about our own approach to school accountability,” Vitti said.

The Community Education Commission created the letter grading system and worked for months with district and charter leaders to design a plan that would be specific to Detroit schools. The topic didn’t come up at a commission meeting Monday night until a member of the public urged the commission to move ahead with the local system and one member of the commission agreed. A commission official earlier in the day said they were still exploring how to move forward in light of the statewide system.

The city’s plan was for schools to be rewarded heavily for the amount of improvement seen in test scores. That’s important in a high-poverty community like Detroit, where most of the schools are struggling. City schools also struggle with enrollment instability.

Vitti said the statewide system “doesn’t provide much clarity on individual school performance,” because it will issue a handful of letter grades. Those letter grades will be based on the number of students proficient in reading and math on state exams, the number of students who show an adequate amount of improvement in reading and math on state exams, the number of students still learning English who show improvement in learning the language, graduation rates for high schools, and the overall academic performance of a school and how it compares to other schools in the state with similar demographics.

The Detroit system would issue a single letter grade. Vitti said a system that issues as many grades as the state system would make it “hard to distinguish one school from another.”

Board President Iris Taylor said she would support such a plan by the district, saying “it’s critical if we’re going to achieve the objectives we have laid out in the strategic plan.”

Board member Sonya Mays said one of the advantages of a statewide system is that it allows “parents to better evaluate from school to school, across districts.”

She said it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that the future of the district is to draw back 32,000 students who live in Detroit but opt to go to schools outside the city.