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OUR OPINION: Old weaknesses, new strengths of ACT scores

“North Dakota students’ ACT scores below national average,” one headline read. Meanwhile, “Minnesota tops the nation in ACT scores,” read another.

But wait.

While the headlines and the stories they top are accurate, they’re also misleading. That’s important, because while the ACT is evolving into a very meaningful measure, it’s not yet there nationwide. And that’s in contrast to what the stories suggest.

The ACT dates back to 1959 and continues to serve as a college-admissions tool. For decades, it has competed with the SAT and has been favored by Midwestern, Rocky Mountain and Southern high schools and students, vs. the SAT on the East and West coasts.

And like the SAT, the ACT is the subject of news stories every year that report comparisons between states.

There’s just one problem: Every year, critics also point out that the comparisons are meaningless.

That’s because the SAT and ACT test-takers traditionally have been a self-selected group. As a result, some states test most of their students while others test very few.

Couple that with other flaws in the comparisons, and you’ve got “above average” and “below average” rankings that aren’t much more meaningful than random lists.

In contrast, the National Assessment of Educational Progress is designed and administered specifically to allow valid comparisons between states. So, when North Dakota and Minnesota’s NAEP results rise, fall or stay the same, the trends mean a great deal, and parents, teachers and everyone else should take note.


But that was then.

This is now:

Some 13 states now have started paying for all high-school juniors to take the ACT. In North Dakota, all juniors are required to take either the ACT or the related WorkKeys assessment.

Five more states, including Minnesota, will join this group next year.

So, some states, including North Dakota, now can report ACT scores for 91 to 100 percent of their high-school juniors. That means comparisons between cities and towns within a state suddenly have become more meaningful, as have comparisons between those “universal ACT” states.

This year, the averages in those 13 states on the ACT composite score ranged from 18.9 in North Carolina to 20.8 in Utah. So, North Dakota’s average composite score of 20.6 put it close to the top (in that 13-state group), not “below the national average,” as the news stories suggested.

Meanwhile, we’ll have to wait until next year to find out if Minnesota’s average composite score of 22.9 holds up — or if it drops, as has happened in every state once it requires the ACT for all juniors.

These changes in the ACT’s administration are new, so we’ll wait for statisticians to decide whether the new comparisons hold up. Meanwhile, it’s important not to pay too much attention to nationwide ACT averages, while recognizing how important it is that almost all North Dakota juniors now take the ACT.