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ACT test scores show modest improvement but Nevada still ranks last

Jackie Valley
Jackie Valley
Students walking through a school security checkpoint

Nevada remains a bottom-dweller when it comes to ACT test scores, despite a modest increase posted by the state’s 2019 high school graduates.

The state’s average composite score increased from 17.7 last year to 17.9 this year, according to data released Wednesday in the ACT’s annual report. Nationally, the average composite score for the college-entrance exam fell one-tenth to 20.7.

Although Nevada’s increase bucked the national trend, it wasn’t enough to propel the state out of its last-place finish among all states and the District of Columbia. Nevada’s average composite score also trails neighboring states’ by at least one point: Utah (20.3), Arizona (19), California (22.6), Oregon (21.1) and Idaho (22.5). 

“We acknowledge that we are still behind the national performance, but these results are in line with our goal of becoming the fastest improving state in the nation,” state Superintendent Jhone Ebert said in a statement.

Nevada is one of 15 states where all graduates took the ACT, which measures college readiness and is used by higher-education institutions during the admissions process. Because graduation requirements can differ by state, many education officials view ACT scores as a more accurate look at how Nevada students compare with their peers across the country. But they acknowledge that Nevada’s overall lower average score may stem from the fact that it’s a graduation requirement, meaning students who don’t want to attend college may have little motivation to take the test seriously. 

Still, there were several signs of progress this year — specifically, improvements in reading, English and math that moved the needle on Nevada’s overall composite score. Science scores, however, remained stagnant at 17.9. 

State education officials also lauded gains made by student subgroups this year, although stark divides still exist among them. The average composite scores for:

  • Hispanic students increased from 16.4 last year to 16.7
  • White students increased from 19.9 last year to 20.1
  • Black students increased from 15.3 to 15.5

But only 12 percent of Nevada graduates — the same percentage as last year — met all four ACT College Readiness Benchmarks, which are scores of 18 on the English section, 22 on the math section, 22 on the reading section and 23 on the science section. 

Twenty percent of Nevada graduates met three out of four ACT benchmarks, marking a 1 percent increase over the prior year.

Nationally, the percentages of graduates who met or exceeded the math (39 percent) or English (59 percent) benchmarks are at a 15-year low, according to the ACT report. But testing officials pointed out that college readiness among students who take the recommended core curriculum in high school — four years of English and three years each of math, science and social studies — remains stable. 

“Our findings once again indicate that taking core courses in high school dramatically increases a student’s likelihood for success after graduation,” ACT CEO Marten Roorda said in a statement. “That’s why we need to ensure that all students of all backgrounds have access to rigorous courses and that we are supporting them not only academically, but socially and emotionally as well.”

NAEP Assessment

Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress also show academic gains made by younger Nevada students.

Seventy-seven percent of fourth-graders scored at or above the basic level in math, marking a 4 percentage  point increase over 2017. Additionally, 34 percent of fourth-graders scored at or above the proficient level, up from 31 percent. 

Meanwhile, the percentage of fourth-graders performing at or above the basic reading level increased from 61 percent to 64 percent. Thirty-one percent of fourth-graders achieved reading proficiency, which is unchanged from 2017.

The NAEP assessments also highlighted glaring achievement gaps among Nevada students. For instance, math and reading scores for black students in fourth and eighth grade were 26 to 32 points lower than white students. Hispanic students in those grades performed 17 to 20 points lower than white students as well.

The National Center for Education Statistics administers the NAEP assessments every two years to gauge students’ math and reading abilities; however, only a sample of students in fourth and eighth grades take the standardized tests. Nearly 13,000 students from 224 schools in Nevada participated this year.


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