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A student smiles as she looks out the window of her school bus on the first day back to school Thursday, August 15, 2019, in Lafayette, La.

Louisiana is ranked 49th in the nation on a test of college readiness called the ACT, down from 45th last year, according to results released Tuesday.

The news was not much better on a separate test called the nation's report card, where public school students finished between 44th and 49th nationally in math and reading assessments.

However, state Superintendent of Education John White said Tuesday it is significant that eighth-graders showed the biggest gains in the nation in math since 2017, a subject that has long challenged educators.

"That has been our Achilles heel for a long time," White said.

The state was also among the nation's leaders in improvements in eighth-grade reading and other subjects since 2017, figures compiled by the state Department of Education show.

The composite score on the ACT was 18.8, down from 19.2 last year and 19.5 the year before, when the state was ranked 43rd nationally.

The results, which include both public and private high school students, rates what students know in English, math, science and reading.

Results are based on a scale of 1-to-36.

State education leaders are quick to note that Louisiana is one of just 15 states where all high school students are required to take the ACT.

Louisiana ranked 13th of 15 among the states, ahead of only Mississippi and Nevada.

Nationally, the 18.8 composite average is tied with South Carolina.

Connecticut and Massachusetts are tied for No. 1 nationally on ACT results – 25.5.

A total of 22% and 21% of students respectively took the test in those states.

The national average is 20.7, down from 20.8 last year.

The key to getting the best results is a rigorous high school curriculum, said Marten Roorda, chief executive officer of the ACT, which is located in Iowa City, Iowa.

"Students who don't take challenging courses – particularly those from underserved populations – may lack the self-confidence and ambition to do so, and social and emotional learning instruction can help them improve in those areas," Roorda said in a statement.

How Louisiana students fared on individual subjects mirrored previous results.

In English, 51% of test-takers met the benchmark compared to 32% in reading, 22% in math and 24% in science.

White said one question is how eighth-graders could lead the nation on the nation's report card in math gains since 2017 while the ACT results for math showed a two-point drop from last year.

"We are going to look at that and make the changes we need to," he said of the ACT results.

All high school students have been required to take the ACT since 2013.

The change was made to boost the number of students who score high enough to qualify for college, and those numbers have risen dramatically.

The nation's report card – formally the National Assessment of Educational Progress – included nearly 294,000 students nationally in reading and nearly 297,000 in math.

Results are based on a 500-point scale.

In Louisiana, fourth-graders were 49th in math and 49th in reading.

Eighth-graders were 48th in math and 44th in reading.

Nationally, scores dropped in both fourth- and eighth-grade reading.

They rose in fourth-grade math and fell in eighth-grade math.

"Over the past decade there has been no progress in either mathematics or reading performance, and the lowest performing students are doing worse," Peggy G. Carr, associate commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, said in a statement on the national results.

The NCES administers the exam.

Louisiana has long finished near the bottom nationally on NAEP scores.

But the state finished first in the nation for improvements in eighth-grade math since 2017, a gain of five points compared to an average drop of 1 point nationally.

In the past decade, the state ranks 9th nationally in improvements in fourth-grade reading; 14th in fourth-grade math and fifth in both eighth-grade reading and eighth-grade math.

Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.