More Oklahoma high school students than ever are taking the ACT college-readiness exam before graduation, which reflects a major push intended to place more students on the path to a four-year college degree.

Newly released data shows that in 2017, Oklahoma had the largest gain of any state in the percentage of ACT-tested graduates and, for the first time, reached 100 percent of graduating seniors tested, as measured by statistical projections for number of graduates. (To arrive at the percent tested, the ACT uses projections of high school graduates from the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. A 100 percent doesn’t necessarily mean that every single student took the exam but the vast majority did.)

The number of students taking the exam increased from 32,854 in 2016 to 42,405 in 2017, according to data released by ACT Inc. Thursday.

With the increase in test-takers came a one-point decrease in the state’s average composite score, to 19.4 out of a possible 36. The national average was 21.

“This is the first time we have had a complete picture that can predict graduates’ readiness to compete in the global marketplace,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister, who has led the effort to make ACT participation universal. “Before now, our state ACT scores did not measure the needs of the ‘hidden’ student — be it a low-income student who could not afford a college entrance exam or a rural student who could not reach a testing site.”

Matt Higdon, director of student preparation for the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education, noted a significant increase in students who took the exam just once, perhaps uncovering their college-going potential.

“As a result of being a statewide opportunity, students who never would have taken the assessment, did,” he said.

ACT released the findings in its annual score report, based on spring 2017 graduates. Most four-year colleges require students to submit either ACT or SAT scores, but the ACT is much more common among Oklahoma students.

Access to the ACT has increased significantly under Hofmeister. In the 2015-16 school year, she implemented a pilot program giving all 11th grade students an opportunity to take the exam, and the state covered the cost. All but two public high schools participated and 79 percent of juniors took the test.

The program was expanded in 2016-17, and school districts were given the choice to offer the ACT or SAT free of charge to students. The tests were administered at schools and during the school day, eliminating cost and transportation barriers.

Beginning this school year, the ACT and SAT tests replace end-of-instruction exams and will be required for all 11th grade students. The switch is expected to save $2.4 million a year.

Other highlights from the report on the graduating class of 2017:

–Average scores for Oklahoma students in each subsection were English, 18.5; math, 18.8; reading, 20.1; and science, 19.6. Each was below the national average of English, 20.3; math, 20.7; reading, 21.4; and science, 21.0.

–Racial disparities exist. White students in Oklahoma had an average composite score of 20.5, while black and Hispanic students scored an average of 16.6 and 17.7, respectively. American Indian graduates had an average composite score of 18.0.

–Just 16 percent of Oklahoma graduating seniors met all four college readiness benchmarks (English, math, reading and science), a drop of 5 percentage points from 2016. Forty-two percent of students met none of the benchmarks, an increase of 9 percentage points. The benchmarks predict a 50 percent chance the student will obtain a B or higher or a 75 percent chance of earning a C or higher in the corresponding college course.

–Nearly four in five Oklahoma students aspire to go to college. Forty-two percent said they want to earn a bachelor’s, 9 percent want an associate’s and 28 percent want a graduate or professional degree.

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