Center Hill High School students go to their lockers after the bells rings between classes in Olive Branch Tuesday, May 7, 2019. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Department of Education officials announced annual average ACT scores on Thursday, which indicate that the majority of high school juniors in the state are not college ready. 

While average ACT scores rose slightly for juniors across the state from 17.6 in 2019 to 17.7 in 2020, 90% of students are not hitting all four ACT benchmarks, which are used to gauge whether a student is likely to pass college courses that correspond to these test sections such as Algebra, Biology or Social Sciences. This is a 1% improvement from 2019, when 91% of students missed benchmarks for the ACT. 

“As we look at [these benchmarks] we see a close connection to college readiness for students,” said Nathan Oakley, Mississippi Department of Education Chief Academic Officer. 

Where ACT recommends that students score at least an 18 on English, 22 on Math, 22 on Reading and 23 on Science, Mississippi students on average scored 16.8 on English, 17.5 on Math, 17.9 on Reading and 18.2 on Science. 

Teachers and school administrators have said that lack of resources and fatigue from state testing often contributes to lower ACT scores. Because students’ state test scores account for so much of a school district’s accountability grade, school resources prioritize preparing students to perform well on the state tests, not the ACT. 

This means that a significant amount of classroom time is put toward preparing students for the state tests, which have no bearing on whether a student can get into college, rather than ACT prep, which has everything to do with college access.     

All schools and school districts are given an accountability score that rates A through F. These scores are of tremendous importance to the school district. Businesses evaluate these ratings when considering setting up shop in a community, potential homeowners are typically drawn to regions with higher ratings because it indicates a better school district. 

Also, if a school district scores an F on the accountability ratings two years in a row, the State Board of Education “may abolish the school district and assume control and administration of the schools,” according to MDE. This means the local school board would be dissolved and the superintendent would be removed from their position. 

All of this can trickle down — especially in resource strapped, underperforming schools — to intense pressure on students to perform well on state tests because those scores make up the majority of the accountability grade. 

Out of the 1,000 point system that schools with 12th grade classes are graded on for the accountability rating, 665 are based on how students perform on state tests. The ACT accounts for 47.5 points of that grade with 23.75 points depending on ACT Math performance and 23.75 points for ACT reading or english points. 

Teachers and education advocates have argued that this grading system disincentivizes underperforming, underfunded school districts from prioritizing ACT prep because so much of the accountability grade rides on the state tests results. 

They also say that this grading model does not benefit students; state tests results do not impact whether a student can get into college, while a student’s ACT score directly impacts whether they’ll be eligible for college enrollment, scholarships and other opportunities that are crucial for college access. 

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Kelsey Davis Betz is from Mobile, Ala., and currently lives in Cleveland, where she worked as a Mississippi Delta-based reporter covering education and intersecting issues. Kelsey has a dual degree in journalism and Spanish from Auburn University and worked as an editorial intern at Texas Monthly and a courts reporter at the Montgomery Advertiser. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report and is a co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.