1-17-19 Penny Schwinn_Education Commissioner_official Bluebook Portait

Penny Schwinn

Tennessee’s statewide average composite ACT scores dropped slightly in the 2019-20 school year, and fewer students took the test.

State officials blame COVID-19, while one education expert says that is not the entire cause and that Gov. Bill Lee’s administration has failed to make postsecondary readiness a priority.

The Tennessee Department of Education on Nov. 20 released the ACT state results and participation rate for the 2020 graduating class. The ACT report was issued three weeks later than specified by law, which says that the education commissioner must release the ACT results by Nov. 1 every year. DOE said the law sets a Nov. 1 deadline “if data has been made available to the department from ACT by that date. This year, Tennessee's data was provided by ACT to the department under embargo until Oct. 14. After conducting the annual appeals window with districts, and suppressing the data as necessary to ensure the data does not include private or individual student information, final data sets were prepared and posted to the department's website on the data downloads page. The department will also be adding this data to the state report card.”

Statewide participation remained “relatively stable” with 62,564 graduates taking the ACT in 2019-20, or 97 percent participation, DOE said. The average composite was 19.9. In 2018-19, 63,829 took the ACT, or 98 percent; the average composite was 20.0 for the graduating class.

Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said in a statement, “Despite so many changes and challenges during 2019-20 school year, we are incredibly proud to report the state’s ACT participation rate held steady for 2020 graduates. This did not happen by accident.”

Rutherford County experienced a similar drop.

For 2019-20, Rutherford County Schools had a 20.7 average composite (with 96 percent participation), compared to 20.8 for 2018-19 (with 99 percent participation rate).

J.C. Bowman, executive director of the Professional Educators of Tennessee, a teachers’ organization, said the ACT results show the state is losing ground in preparing students for college.

“We are very concerned about the decline in ACT scores,” Bowman said. “Our goal must be to open more doors for students after high school. This is the second data point showing a decline in post-secondary readiness in Tennessee. First, we saw the graduation rate drop and now we are seeing a decline in the ACT scores. Our state had record-high high school graduation rates, as well as improvements in ACT scores and participation under Governor Haslam.”

“In less than two years, under this current administration, there has been a lack of focus on postsecondary readiness and measurable objectives,” Bowman said. “Officials at ACT indicated that ACT scores for the 2020 graduating class were not impacted substantively by COVID-19.”

Bowman said, “However, COVID-19 could impact the testing rate and average scores of future graduating classes. Policymakers will want to look at the lack of measurable goals for post-secondary readiness in the Tennessee Department of Education’s strategic plan and ask how they plan to address this in the future. This current lack of focus is evident in the fact that 7,000 fewer 2020 grads took the free ACT retake compared to their peers in the 2019 graduates. With the disruptions of COVID, the challenges presented to our graduates to matriculate, the class of 2020 saw almost 800 fewer grads meet the ACT criteria for the Hope Scholarship.”

According to DOE, the average ACT score for the public school graduating class of 2020 in each subject area was: 

•             19.5 in English, 0.1 point decrease from the graduating cohort of 2019

•             19.2 in math, 0.2 point decrease

•             20.5 in reading, equal to 2019

•             19.9 in science, 0.1 point decrease.

Editor's note: This story was updated with a statement by DOE on the timing of the ACT report.

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