Kentucky's public high school juniors improved their math scores slightly on the ACT this year, but scores on the test in other subjects remained flat or fell slightly.
The 2009 ACT scores also show that less than half of public high school juniors in Kentucky are ready to do college-level work in English, algebra and other subjects.
The Kentucky Department of Education posted the ACT scores on its Web site Monday. They reflect tests that juniors in public schools took in March.
Overall, state ACT scores changed little from 2008. The report suggests no dramatic overall trends, because this is only the second year that all juniors in Kentucky public schools have been required to take the ACT. The test assesses students' ability to complete college work and is considered the most widely accepted college entrance exam.
Kentucky is one of only a handful of states requiring the test, which assesses English, reading, mathematics and science skills. Each subject is scored on a scale of 1 to 36. The test is administered statewide on the same day.
Monday's ACT report drew a variety of responses from educational experts around the state.
Richard Day, a former principal at Lexington's Cassidy Elementary School who now teaches at Eastern Kentucky University and is the main contributor to the blog Theprincipal.blogspot.com, said that with only two years of scores, it's too soon to declare a trend. Even if a trend were spotted, Day said, it would be tough to assign a meaning.
"What would you attribute that to? The ACT curriculum is not what Kentucky teaches," Day said.
Rather, Day said, the ACT is one of several measures for evaluating student performance, designed to distinguish "between good students and very good students."
This year, 43,511 Kentucky juniors took the test, according to the state department of education, up from a little more than 42,900 last year.
The 2009 juniors' statewide score in math was 18.2, up slightly from the 18.1 that last year's junior class recorded.
Scores in reading and science fell slightly from 2008, although the score in English, 17.3, remained unchanged from last year. Nevertheless, that was enough to cause the state's overall composite score to fall from 18.3 in 2008 to 18.2 this year.
State education officials said that, based on the 2009 ACT scores, 46 percent of Kentucky's juniors are ready for college-level English courses, 21 percent are ready for college-level algebra, 30 percent are ready for college-level social science courses, and 16 percent are ready for college-level biology classes. Those numbers essentially are unchanged from last year.
Lisa Gross, spokeswoman for the state education department, said the relatively low level of college preparation might reflect that many juniors hadn't taken upper-level courses yet.
Robert King, president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, said the state's educational bureaucracy is trying to figure out how to align high school curricula so students will arrive at college better prepared. The step is one of several educational changes required under legislation passed by the General Assembly this year.
As things stand now, King said, Kentucky students can do everything that's asked of them in K-12 and not be competitive in college. The goal, he said, is for colleges to communicate what they expect incoming students to know, and for Kentucky's elementary and secondary education system to teach it.
King said that will be measured if there is a significant reduction by 2014 in the number of Kentucky students who reach college requiring "developmental education" or remedial teaching.
"Every student will be taught a curriculum ... that will enable them, assuming they pass their courses, to be ready, he said.
Yvonne Baldwin, an administrator at Morehead State University, cautioned against putting too much stock in ACT results.
"Relying on the ACT as the sole measure of college readiness is a trap, because it gives too much power to the test," Baldwin said. "I think we need to go back to teaching high school in high school, and college in college. ... The national trend data says that a rigorous high school experience is the best indicator of college success. And I don't think that's happening for a lot of students."
Some other states that mandate ACT testing for juniors have seen their scores increase. Scores in Illinois, which began requiring the test in 2001, have risen incrementally. The state's composite score rose from 20.3 in 2004 to 20.7 by 2008. In Colorado, where required testing began in 2000, the average state score has been about 20 for the last five years.
According to the figures released Monday, black students' scores lagged behind those of white students. The 2009 composite score for black students was 15.6, compared with 18.6 for white students, the state said.
Fayette County Public Schools also released figures showing that black students in the system had a composite ACT score of 16.1 for 2009, compared with 21.0 for white students.
However, state education officials and Fayette schools officials said those figures might not be accurate. The numbers could be skewed by whether students listed their racial backgrounds on test papers when they took the ACT, the officials said.