Our Views: Bad, good news on ACT

New ACT results for Louisiana’s high school students show how much work remains to be done in raising academic success across the state.

The composite average ACT score for public and private school students is 19.2, down from 19.5 last year and 20.3 the year before. Only Mississippi, North Carolina and Hawaii scored lower.

The national average for the ACT is 21. A perfect score is 36.

The ACT is a common test of readiness for college. Louisiana Superintendent of Education John White said the drop in the statewide average isn’t surprising, since Louisiana is still adjusting to a new law that requires all high school seniors to take the test. States that require all high school seniors to take the ACT generally need a year or two to reverse the drops in composite scores after the new requirement is implemented. Widening the pool of test takers can initially bring in more students who were not fully prepared.

But White also pointed to poor overall performance in math skills among Louisiana’s high school students. He said the results make the case that math standards have to be toughened.

We’re heartened, as White is, by the news that an expanded pool of test takers has translated into a greater number of Louisiana students who might qualify for TOPS, the state program that funds college tuition for students who can meet a fairly modest standard of academic achievement. This year, more than 6,000 additional students scored at least a 17 on the ACT, the minimum score needed for some kind of TOPS scholarship.

Not everyone is a fan of the policy requiring all high school seniors to take the ACT. Critics claim the test is unnecessary for students with no plans to attend college.

But plans can change, and we’re reluctant to dismiss students so quickly from the college option. College isn’t for everyone, but the relatively low level of educational attainment in Louisiana comes from a long tradition of setting the bar too low. The goal shouldn’t be to force every student into college, but to give young people as many options as possible. The ACT can help students clarify those options, and requiring all students to take the test is a good idea.