Illinois high school students posted the highest average ACT score in at least nearly three decades, but that achievement is tempered by the tremendous drop in the number of students who took the test.
Illinois high school students in the graduating class of 2018 posted an average composite score of 23.9 out of 36 points on the ACT — one of two widely used tests to help determine college readiness.
That mark beat the national average score of 20.8 and bested the state's 2017 average score of 21.4, according to an annual report released by ACT early Wednesday. The average Illinois scores were 20.8 in 2016 and 20.7 in 2014 and 2015.
However, the number of 2018 graduating students who took the ACT dropped dramatically compared to previous years due to the state's 2015 decision to transition students to the SAT, the other well-known college entrance exam. The SAT test is now given to all high school juniors and paid for by the state.
Still, more than 93 percent of students in the Class of 2017 took the ACT despite the fact that the state was no longer paying for or requiring the testing. Experts had said that Illinois would probably have seen a larger drop but for the fact that some districts and schools opted to pay for the test.
The drop was expected to be more dramatic in 2018, and the numbers now show that just 43 percent of the graduating class -- or 62,626 of more than 145,000 students -- took the test.
"So actually, 43 percent still took the ACT even though they were getting the SAT for free," said ACT spokesman Ed Colby. "We're quite happy with that."
Scores for individual high schools were not released by ACT on Wednesday.
Colby said ACT has reliable data dating to 1991, and that the 2018 score for Illinois is the highest since then. The previous highest score since then was 21.6 in 2001 when 71 percent of that year's graduating class took the test.
Colby cautioned that this year's scores are not necessarily indicative of improvements across the board, since fewer students are taking the test. Those who now take the test are likely students trying to boost their scores in order to get into the college of their choice.
"The fact that the ACT is no longer required in Illinois means that only students who are preparing for college are likely to take the exam, pushing the scores higher than previous years," Colby said.
The ACT was given to all juniors in Illinois for about 15 years.
Illinois did fare well compared to other states, which had similar percentages of students taking the exam, according to the ACT report.
Oregon saw 42 percent of its 2018 graduating class take the test, posting an average score of 21.3 points. Texas had 41 percent of students take the exam, with an average of 20.6 points, according to the report.
Nationwide, 19 states offer the exam to their students and pay for it, including 13 states that require students to take it.
The importance of good ACT and SAT scores -- long viewed as an essential part of would-be college students' bid to get into their schools of choice -- is becoming increasingly downplayed by college admissions officials as a growing number of colleges and universities have stopped requiring them.
Earlier this year, the University of Chicago joined a host of other schools, including DePaul University, when officials announced they would not longer require SAT and ACT exams as part of the university's admissions process.
The decision was prompted by concern that by requiring the test scores, the University of Chicago was telling prospective students that good scores were all that mattered, and that it was unfair to first-generation, low-income and minority students for whom the cost of prepping for the tests was a financial hardship.
Still, some Illinois schools, including New Trier Township High School and Southland College Prep Charter High School, continued to offer the ACT exam to their students in 2018 in addition to the state-mandated SAT test, according to ACT data.
At Southland College Prep in Richton Park, the 125 students who took it for 2018 posted an average score of 22.8, according to the school's CEO, Blondean Davis.
Davis said school officials view the test as an extra set of data to provide to colleges in order to give their students the best chance at being accepted into the schools they would like to attend.
"Quite a few of our children go to private schools, and if you're looking at a school like Princeton, Yale or Vanderbilt, you want to release as much data as possible," Davis said.
The ACT and SAT have different structures, which means that students may do better on one than the other. Davis said the school will continue to administer the ACT to students in the near future, not only to help them get into the colleges of their choice but also to help teachers and staff fine-tune the school's curriculum and instructional methods.
"One of our goals is to be competitive in not only the state, but nationally. You can't do that unless you address all issues about how students are doing on competitive exams," Davis said. "We see this as not only a college entrance tool but as a tool we use over the summer to analyze and modify our instructional process."