COLUMBIA — Missouri's high school class of 2009 slightly exceeded the national average on the ACT college entrance exam, but three-fourths of those students fell short of the test's threshold for expected college success.
Missouri's recent graduates averaged a composite score of 21.6 on the test's scale of one to 36. The national composite average was 21.1.
Twenty-five percent of Missouri test-takers met the college-readiness bench mark in all four subjects: English, math, reading and science. That's two percentage points higher than the national average.
"Someone can be admitted to an institution, but that doesn't mean they're ready for college courses," said Paul Wagner, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Higher Education.
The college-readiness bench mark sets the minimum scores needed on each ACT subject-area test to give students a 50 percent chance of earning a B or higher and a 75 percent chance of earning a C or higher in a typical first-year college course.
For the first time in five years, the number of Missouri students taking the exam declined to 46,923, a decrease of about 300 from 2008.
State education officials attribute the drop to a lower number of high school graduates after a recent population boom.
Nationally, a record 1.48 million spring graduates took the exam, an increase boosted by mandatory ACT tests in seven states.
In Missouri, 67 percent of 2009 graduates took the ACT test — the lowest percentage in a decade. But that figure continues to far surpass the number of students taking the SAT test, Wagner said.
Missouri's average scores exceeded the national average in English, reading and math — although by less than a percentage point. On the math test, Missouri's average score of 20.9 was one-tenth of a percentage point lower than the national average.
Since 1996, Missouri's average composite score has hovered between 21.4 and 21.6. The overall average has remained unchanged since 2005.
"There's nothing to be discouraged about," said Wagner. "We've held steady again."
Scores for minority students in Missouri continue to lag behind the overall averages.
Black students averaged a composite score of 17.2 statewide, compared to 22.4 for whites. Hispanic students averaged a composite score of 20.2. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders scored an average of 23.8.
Only 4 percent of black students met the college-readiness bench mark on all four subjects, compared to 28 percent for whites, 16 percent for Hispanics and 38 percent for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
New state Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro called the minority performance gap troubling. She is also concerned about the low number of students who met each of the college-readiness bench marks.
"There's no question that's a high bar," she said. "We need to do everything possible we can to equip our students to reach or exceed that bar."
Nicastro suggested that the State Board of Education may need to raise Missouri's high school graduation requirements. But she pointed out that local districts can set tougher standards than the state's minimum.