Louisiana’s average score on a test of college readiness dipped for the second consecutive year, and remains among the lowest in the nation.
However, state Superintendent of Education John White told reporters Tuesday that the drop again stems largely from a change in state policy and is more than offset by additional students qualifying for college.
“Opportunity for young people is more important than what the average score is,” White said.
The exam is called the ACT and it reflects how students fared on questions about English, math, reading and science.
Louisiana’s composite average for public and private students is 19.2, down from 19.5 last year and 20.3 the year before.
The score is higher than only Mississippi, North Carolina and Hawaii.
The national average is 21.0. A perfect score is 36.
Last year’s drop was blamed mostly on the fact that, for the first time, all public high school seniors were required to take the test.
White said this year’s decline stemmed partly from the fact that it includes scores from a “fair number” of juniors who took the test last year, later dropped out but whose scores are reflected in the final tally.
However, he said dismal math results are also a key reason for the state ranking near the bottom nationally, and a sign that standards need to be toughened.
Only 27 percent of high school graduates met the math benchmarks for college readiness compared to 43 percent nationwide. “And that should be no surprise,” White said.
“We have policies in our state that have institutionalized low expectations in mathematics,” he said.
“Fewer than 10 percent of eighth-graders take algebra I,” White said. “These are choices we have made that other states not have made. When we change that, to have more kids take algebra, we will see higher ACT results.”
More than 49,000 students took the test.
The total last year was about 45,000, a rise of 8,600 students when the class of 2013 became the first where all seniors were required to take the exam.
Critics contend the new policy makes no sense for students without college plans.
White said the expanded pool of test takers means the number of students who scored at least a 17 on the ACT — the minimum number needed for some kind of TOPS scholarship — rose by 6,339 students.
“The fact that 6,000 more kids can go to college is so much more important than a drop in the average,” he said.
Ed Colby, a spokesman for the ACT in Iowa City, Iowa, agreed in part.
“The whole idea is to get students thinking about the importance of attending college and increasing access to college,” Colby said.
He said states like Louisiana that require all public high school seniors to take the test typically need a year or two to reverse the drops in composite scores.
“Other states have had some bumps in the road,” Colby said.
Louisiana is one of 12 states where 100 percent of public high school seniors take the ACT.
Scores in eight of those states rose this year.
Utah has the highest composite average among states that require all graduates to take the ACT at 20.8.
Massachusetts has the highest average nationally — 24.3 — but only 23 percent of graduates take the exam.
Others take the SAT.
Follow Will Sentell on Twitter @WillSentell. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.