ST. PAUL—After dropping for a year, Minnesota students' scores on the ACT college entrance exam are on the rise, but future access to the test might be limited.
Minnesota's composite ACT score rose four-tenths of a point to 21.5 in 2017, compared with a national average of 21. The state also had the highest score of the 17 states where every eligible student takes the exam.
A perfect score is 36.
ACT uses students' performance on the exam to judge their college readiness, and Minnesota students made gains in all four areas: English, reading, math and science.
Test scores increased in nearly every racial and ethnic group.
Yet concerns about college-level academic proficiency among Minnesota high schoolers remain.
Just 31 percent scored college ready in all four subjects, a 2 percentage point increase over last year and higher than the national average of 27 percent. And there continue to be large gaps between the scores of students of color and their peers.
Gov. Mark Dayton and Brenda Cassellius, state education commissioner, congratulated students, teachers and staff for their progress, calling it evidence of the quality of the state's public schools. They also acknowledged the ongoing challenges.
"But the ACT is one more reminder of the work we have left to do to make sure every single student in Minnesota is given the opportunity to reach their career and college aspirations," Cassellius said. "Educators are working toward this goal every day, and we will keep working to improve equity in our schools until we see gaps shrinking everywhere."
Minnesota's ACT performance took a dip in 2016 when every eligible high school student was required to take the test. Supporters of the requirement said it would bring more opportunities to students who may not have considered postsecondary degrees.
But enthusiasm for that plan quickly waned. This year, state lawmakers slashed the budget for schools to pay for the test and no long require every student be given a chance to take it.
Jim Bartholomew, education policy director for the Minnesota Business Partnership, was pleased to see incremental growth in ACT scores.
"It's always good when kids do better and show progress towards college readiness," Bartholomew said.
But he'd like to see more improvement in high school students' scores on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, or MCAs, which are given in grades three through eight each year and once in high school. The MCAs measure whether students are meeting state benchmarks in English, math and science.
MCA scores have been stagnant the past few years, with high school proficiency in 2017 at 48 percent in math, 61 percent in reading and 56 percent in science. That's troubling for Bartholomew because he says the MCAs are a better predictor of college readiness than the ACT because the state tests are more closely aligned with Minnesota's rigorous academic standards.
"If you are doing well on the MCAs, you are typically on track," Bartholomew said.
A 2016 Minnesota Office of Higher Education report agreed, finding students who were proficient on the MCA were less likely to need remedial courses when they got to college. Bartholomew and some other education advocates would like to see state colleges consider MCA scores in addition to the ACT for admissions.