Louisiana students rank 44th nationally on a test of college readiness called the ACT, officials announced Wednesday.

The composite average – 19.5 out of a possible 36 – was rolled out by state education leaders on July 25.

How public and private students fared nationally was released by the Iowa City, Ia. organization that oversees the tests early Wednesday.

State Superintendent of Education John White told reporters there are positive signs within the numbers, especially when Louisiana is compared with 17 other states where all students are required to take the ACT.

By that measure the state ranks 13 out of 18 states, finishing ahead of Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, Mississippi and Nevada.

White said that comparison is more valid because states where few students take the ACT and take the SAT instead distort the results.

"Should we be satisfied with 13th? Absolutely not. Does it represent real progress? Absolutely it does," he said.

The exam measures how high school students fare in English, math, reading and science.

Louisiana has long finished near the bottom of the list nationally, and White said the state was at the bottom before the state's top school board in 2012 required all students to take the exam.

He said when the state is compared to those where all students take the test it is in the 30th percentile.

Top stories in Baton Rouge in your inbox

Twice daily we'll send you the day's biggest headlines. Sign up today.

Nationally the state finished ahead of Alabama, Hawaii, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina and South Carolina.

Massachusetts is tops in the nation with an average composite score of 24.8.

The average nationally is 20.8, down from 21 last year.

Nearly two-thirds of graduating seniors – 64 percent – took the test, up from 59 percent last year.

"Research clearly shows that scores initially decrease when states adopt the ACT for all students, but access and opportunities increase," said ACT Chief Executive Officer Marten Roorda.

The state Department of Education released figures that show gains in recent years compared to the rest of the nation.

Since 2014 Louisiana students have narrowed the gap nationally in meeting ACT benchmarks, including five percentage points in English, three percentage points in reading, one percentage point in math and four percentage points in science.

"Our state is growing while the nation's performance is stagnating," White said. "Reading through the ACT's report it is evident that high schools and the educators and students of Louisiana have made extraordinary strides in recent years."

The highest scoring districts in Louisiana are St. Tammany, 21.5; West Feliciana, 21.4 and Zachary, 21.3.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.