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Advocate staff file photo by BILL FEIG -- A student works on practice math problems along with the rest of the class at Zachary High School.

Public high school graduates did a fraction better on a national test of college readiness, and the St. Tammany Parish school system topped the state for the third consecutive year, officials announced Wednesday.

Louisiana's average composite score on the ACT is 19.6, up from 19.5 last year.

The ACT measures how students do on English, math, reading and science, and the state ranked 44th nationally in the U.S. last year.

The national average in 2016 was 20.8.

A perfect score is 36.

State rankings for both public and private school students will be announced in September.

The average composite score in the St. Tammany Parish School District is 22, the highest in the state.

"This shows that we are continuing to provide St. Tammany students with the skills they need for successful futures and preparing them to be college and career ready," Regina Sanford, assistant superintendent for the district, said in an email response to questions.

"The ACT is one indicator we use to compare our school district to others on a national level, and I'm pleased that we continue to exceed the national average," Sanford said.

Others include Ascension, 20.3; East Baton Rouge, 18.8; Jefferson, 19.1; Lafayette, 20.1; Livingston, 20.3; Orleans, 18.9 and St. Bernard, 18.8. Also, St. Charles, 20.2; St. John the Baptist, 18.2; West Baton Rouge, 19.5; West Feliciana, 21; Zachary, 21.4 and Central, 21.1.

In the graduating class of 2017, a total of 25,704 students earned a score of 18 or higher, which generally means they can enter a two- or four-year state college without the need for remedial classes.

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That is up from 25,287 students last year and represents an increase of 40 percent since 2012.

The state in 2013 began requiring that all high school seniors take the test.

At that time, Louisiana's ACT average was 19.1.

"Four straight years of gains on the ACT proves beyond a doubt that when you raise expectations for all students they can achieve great things," state Superintendent of Education John White said in a statement.

The average score for black students in Louisiana is 17.5.

The national average for those students is 17.

Last year, an ACT score of 19 put students in the 45th percentile, which means they outperformed 45 percent of their peers.

A score of 20 puts them in the 51st percentile.

White told reporters that while the state is below the national average, the steady gains are significant.

"The important thing is that we sustain the momentum, that we keep the expectations high," he said.

Under current rules, students who score at least an 18 on the ACT can help their schools earn an A rating from the state.

That standard is gradually going to 21 between now and 2025.

Louisiana is among a group of states that require all students to take the test.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.