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Tennessee's average ACT score, historically slow to improve despite constant attention from educators, has made its biggest year-to-year leap since the state began testing all students.

and shows the fruits of the state's move to more rigorous coursework.

"We're starting to see the upward trend. We've been waiting for it, and it feels good that it's here now," said Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman.

Huffman, who has been under fire for advancing controversial education policies, called the results "heartening" and noted that in recent years the ACT had stayed stagnant despite increases among Tennessee students on other major achievement tests.

Though its 19.8 composite score is still well below the national average of 21, Tennessee's class of 2014 saw a three-tenths of a point bump from last year, new results released Wednesday show. That's tied with Kentucky and Wyoming for the largest increase among the 12 states that require all students to take the college entry exam.

It also matches the largest improvement in any state in which more than half of its graduates took the exam.

Tennessee's composite score is now at its highest level since a 2010 state law made the ACT mandatory for all high school juniors.

"That's a pretty big achievement," ACT spokesman Ed Colby said. "One-tenth of a point is about as much difference as we see from year to year — sometimes two-tenths of a point. A three-tenths of a point difference from one year to another is pretty unusual."

Of the dozen states with 100 percent ACT participation, Tennessee scored ahead of North Carolina, Mississippi and Louisiana and below eight others despite posting substantial gains.

Because participation levels vary so wildly — the state with the highest ACT score, Massachusetts with a 24.3, had only 20 percent of graduates tested — ACT officials frown at ranking all 50 states by score. Under that metric, Tennessee would be 43rd nationwide.

While Delaware, the District of Columbia, Idaho and New Hampshire made gains as large as or larger than Tennessee, no more than 45 percent of graduates in those places took the test.

Higher standards

This time last year, the news in Tennessee was gloomier when it came to the ACT, widely seen as the leading metric in college readiness in Tennessee. State education officials had witnessed a decline from a 19.7 composite score to 19.5.

Huffman didn't chalk up the improvement to any one policy item, but pointed to tougher high school graduation requirements and higher standards beginning in 2010, a push that has continued with the transition to Common Core education standards — a touch point for some of the criticism hurled his way. He also suggested gains were concentrated with public school students as opposed to non-public school students.

"Kids are entering high school with a higher skill level," he said. "And so I think if we can ensure that the high school classes continue to be really rigorous, hopefully by the time we get to the class of 2017 and 2018, we're going to see significantly higher scores by that point in time."

Emily House, director of research at the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, suggested that the state's new "culture of ACT-taking" also might have led to the increase. She believes the Tennessee Promise program, which will offer free tuition to all students at Tennessee community colleges next year, could help drive ACT scores higher next year.

Long way to go

It's still far from a rosy picture even today, however.

Only 19 percent of Tennessee's 69,505 ACT-tested students, compared with 26 percent nationally, reached college-readiness benchmarks in the exam's four subjects: an 18 in English, 22 in reading, 22 in mathematics and 23 in science.

That rate for Tennessee has increased by 3 percentage points since 2010. As in the rest of the nation, scores lag in science and math.

Profound achievement gaps between races also remain. Just 8 percent of African-Americans who took the ACT met three or more subject benchmarks compared with 36 percent of white students and 49 percent of Asian students. Performance among black students stayed roughly the same as last year.

ACT results for individual districts will be available at a later time.

Tennessee's ACT score over the past five years

2010: 19.6

2011: 19.5

2012: 19.7

2013: 19.5

2014: 19.8

Percent of Tennessee students who met ACT college-readiness benchmarks

2010: 16%

2011: 15%

2012: 16%

2013: 18%

2014: 19%

ACT score rankings in states where all students are tested

Utah: 20.8

Illinois: 20.7

Colorado: 20.6

North Dakota: 20.6

Montana: 20.5

Michigan: 20.1

Wyoming: 20.1

Kentucky: 19.9

Tennessee: 19.8

Louisiana: 19.2

Mississippi: 19

North Carolina: 18.9

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