South Carolina makes small gains in ACT college entrance exam scores

Photo illustration by Gill Guerry/Staff

South Carolina public school students continue to make small gains in scores on the ACT college entrance exam, but still fell short of the national average, according to figures released Wednesday.

The state's ACT score for public school students saw a 0.1-point gain for an average score of 20.2 on the 36-point scale. The score for all of the state's students, which includes public and private schools, remained unchanged from 2013 at 20.4. Both scores fell short of the national average of 21.

Results among Lowcountry school districts were mixed with some districts making gains while others saw a dip in scores. "South Carolina students are to be commended for their performance on the 2014 ACT test," Mick Zais, state superintendent of education, said in a news release. "While South Carolina's average ACT composite score was slightly under the national average, its proximity proves that we are making progress. These are positive results that we can build on for the future."

Statewide, students' scores for math showed no change from 2013, but there was a 0.1-point increase in scores for both reading and science, which rose to 20.6 and 20.2 respectively. Scores for English saw a 0.1-point decline for an average score of 19.2.

The ACT is made of four subtests: English, math, reading and science reasoning. The test scores released Wednesday by the South Carolina Department of Education are from students who graduated in 2014, regardless of when they took the exam. In all, 23,232 students across the state took the ACT this spring, including 20,782 public school students. The number of public school students who took the test went up 12.7 percent from the 18,443 in 2013.

Dino Teppara, state Department of Education spokesman, on Wednesday credited the steady increase in the state's ACT scores for public school students to "a greater focus on test preparation and course curriculum in high school."

Among local districts, the Berkeley County School District saw the biggest increase in its composite score with a 0.6-point gain for an average score of 20.1. Dorchester District 4 had a 0.5-point increase in its composite score for an average score of 17.6.

Scores for the Charleston County School District and Dorchester District 2 went down, but district officials said the decline was expected as a result of both school districts requiring all juniors to take the test. The districts began the requirement last year, but those scores weren't reflected in state data until now. Students in Berkeley and Dorchester 4 take the test on a voluntary basis.

Charleston experienced a 1.4-point decline in its average score from 21.1 to 19.7. Dorchester District 2 had a 2.2-point decline in its scores, which dropped from 21.2 to 19. District officials said that with more students taking the test than would normally elect to, a drop in test scores would be expected.

"Anytime the participation levels in an assessment are increased greatly, the element of self-selection becomes less of a factor, so we would expect the mean scores to decrease," said Charleston County School spokesman Jason Sakran.

Dorchester District 2 Schools Superintendent Joe Pye isn't worried by the drop in scores.

"I'm more interested in the long-term than the short term," Pye said."We're trying to measure whether we are preparing our kids in this district by using ACT."

Sean Alford, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction in Dorchester 2, said the district has been using the ACT scores to "redesign" its curriculum for English, math, science and social studies. Guidance counselors have also used the scores to help seniors select their final year of courses that will allow them to maximize their academic gains before they graduate.

"We've been able to use it not only to inform our instruction but also for practical uses as it relates to guiding students and their parents," Alford said.

Dorchester 2 and Charleston's decision to require all juniors to take the ACT may offer a glimpse into what the rest of the state could be facing next spring. The General Assembly this year voted to replace state's high school exit exam with a college readiness test like the SAT or ACT and the ACT's WorkKeys test, a work-skills test which Dorchester District 2 already uses.

The state is in the process of purchasing a college readiness test. The procurement process is required to conclude by Sept. 30.

"Hopefully the state will adopt the ACT or something similar and we'll be ahead of everybody else," Pye said.

Editor's note: Earlier published versions of this story gave the wrong information for the amount by which the ACT scores dropped in Charleston and Dorchester 2 school districts.