A Deeper Look into Wisconsin’s ACT Scores

A drop in overall score, persisting achievement gaps, and a massive increase in students taking the exam

August 25, 2016

By Ola Lisowski
MacIver Institute Research Associate

[Madison, Wis…] Wisconsin’s graduating class of 2016 scored an average of 20.5 out of 36 on the ACT exam – a 1.7 point drop from the class of 2015 and slightly below the national average score of 20.8. Of the 18 states that test all public school graduates, Wisconsin’s students ranked fourth, and third best in the midwest.

As in the past, the results show significant racial and ethnic disparities. White students scored an average of 21.5, while black students scored an average of 15.9, and Hispanic students an average of 17.9. The achievement gap between white and black students is 5.6 points, and 3.6 points between white and Hispanic students.

Of the seven midwestern states, Wisconsin’s students ranked sixth. However, education officials have warned the public not to compare scores between states that require all public school students to take the exam and those that don’t. Ohio, Iowa, and Indiana – none of which require students to take the ACT – all achieved higher scores than other midwestern states. Of the four midwestern states that test all public school students, Minnesotans fared the best with an average score of 21.1.

The ACT sets the college readiness benchmark score at 18 for English. Just 60 percent of Wisconsin students met that benchmark. Forty-one percent of students met the benchmark for math.
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Wisconsin students fared worse than the national average in every subject. The largest gap in any subject area was in reading, with a Wisconsin average of 20.7 and a national average of 21.3.

Wisconsinites outperformed the national average in terms of college readiness in only one category: science. Thirty-seven percent of Wisconsin students met the benchmark score of 23. Nationwide, 36 percent of students met the benchmark score in science. In all other categories, Wisconsin students fared slightly worse than the national average.ACT participation.png

Compared to last year’s graduating class, close to 20,000 more students took the exam – an increase of 42 percent. Colleges and universities reported receiving almost two times as many Wisconsin student ACT reports.

This year’s exam is the first that provides indicators of career readiness based on the ACT National Career Readiness Certificate (NCRC). According to the ACT, student attainment of NCRC levels indicates that “workplace employability skills” which are essential for future job success. In Wisconsin, a reported 67 percent of test takers made progress towards at least a gold NCRC level, compared to 68 percent nationally.