Minnesota’s ACT scores are the best in the nation. Here’s why that should be taken with a grain of salt.

January 21, 2020

By Krista Kaput

In October, the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) put out a press release with the headline, “Minnesota Students Continue to Outperform the Nation on ACT.” The release explained that, amongst the 19 states where 90 percent or more students took the ACT, Minnesota students ranked first with a composite score of 21.3—0.5 points above the national average. Furthermore, the ACT report found that students who took the ACT two or more times, had an average score of 23.7, which is 4.4 points higher than the Minnesota students who only took the ACT once. In response to the scores, Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said, “Thousands of Minnesota students are showing us that they are graduating high school with the skills they need to be successful in their careers or college experiences.”

The ACT is a standardized, multiple choice assessment taken by high schoolers that is measured out of thirty-six points and covers four skill areas—English, mathematics, reading, and science. The majority of institutions of higher education use the ACT to gauge a student’s college readiness, with a composite score of 21 or more indicating readiness. Based on the 21.3 composite average for Minnesota, it would seem that the state’s students are, on average, indeed ready for college and career.

And while the release did not include anything that was untrue, because it only referenced aggregate data, it gave the reader only part of the story. However, when we disaggregate the data by race and ethnicity and examine ACT trends since 2014, as well as compare the data against the state’s Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment scores, a different picture about state student achievement emerges.

ACT Scores Disaggregated by Race Illustrate Two Different Minnesotas

As evidenced in the table below, when the ACT scores are disaggregated by race, the variability in outcomes amongst the student groups is stark. What’s particularly poignant is that all of the student groups, except white students, score below the state average composite ACT score of 21.3.

Table 1: Minnesota ACT Scores Disaggregated by Race
Source: Minnesota ACT Profile Report

The disparities in ACT scores are further illustrated in the graph below. in 2018, 13 percent of African American, 16 percent of American Indian, and 23 percent of Hispanic/Latino students from Minnesota met three or more benchmarks in English, mathematics, reading, and science. This compared to 52 percent of White students. Furthermore, looking at trend data since 2014, we see that these disparities are not a one-time phenomena. Rather, students of color consistently score at least twenty percentage points below White students in meeting three or more benchmarks on the ACT.

This is problematic. According to an October 2017 ACT brief, students who meet the more benchmarks have a much higher chance of completing an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. With research clearly articulating a correlation between educational attainment and success in a myriad of variables—higher wages, better health, lower mortality rates, and more stable housing—having student groups with such low educational achievement is not only an equity issue It’s a civil rights issue.

Figure 1: Percent of 2014-2018 ACT-Tested High School Graduates Meeting Three or More Benchmarks by Race/Ethnicity
Source: Minnesota State Report Card.

Checkpoint: Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments Tell A Similar Story

When we compare ACT data against the other major Minnesota assessment used to gauge college readiness, the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCA), a similar pattern emerges. According to MDE, if a student “Meets” or “Exceeds” standards on the MCAs then they are, “expected to be able to successfully complete credit-bearing coursework without the need for remediation at a two- or four-year college or university, or other credit-bearing postsecondary program.”

In 2018, less than 40 percent of Black/African-American, Hispanic/Latino, and American Indian students “Met” or “Exceeded” standards on the reading MCAs. In that same year, for all three student groups, less than 25 percent “Met” or “Exceeded” standards on the Mathematics MCAs. Conversely, 67 percent of White students “Met” or “Exceeded” standards in reading, with nearly 55 percent “Meeting” or “Exceeding” standards in Mathematics.

The trend data depicts the same story as the disaggregated ACT data: marginal increases or decreases in reading and mathematics scores across all student groups, but with enduring and wide gaps.

And while there are other factors to consider when examining the scores for these assessments —among them MCA opt-out rates and increases in students taking the ACT—comparing these two data college-readiness tests results by race and ethnicity does illustrate the educational inequities that not only exist, but also persist, in Minnesota.

Table 2: Percentage of Minnesota 10/11th Grade Students Meeting or Exceeding Standards on MCA Reading and Math
Source: Minnesota State Report Card.

Before I End...

Let me be clear. Teachers, administrators, families, and students deserve acknowledgement for their accomplishments in raising ACT and MCA scores and for their efforts to prepare students for college and career. As a former public school teacher, I know teaching is challenging, exhausting, and daunting while simultaneously being incredibly rewarding and fulfilling. There is nothing more beautiful than seeing the joy on a student’s face when they master a topic for the first time or hearing the pride in a family member’s voice when you call to tell them their student did well on an assignment or assessment.

However, as a white former public school teacher who had the privilege of teaching primarily students of color, I also know our current model of public education does not and was not designed to work for all students-- particularly students of color and low socioeconomic status students. We can look beyond the test score data to other data points like disproportionate suspension and expulsion rates, chronic absenteeism, lack of teacher diversity, and others to see that Minnesota is not serving its students of color equitably.

If we are going to start rectifying our educational disparities, we cannot keep making marginal tweaks to a system that is doing exactly what it was designed to do—educate the masses in a standardized fashion that fails to regard who students are as individuals. We must have open and transparent conversations about our shortcomings. We must listen to the concerns and recommendations from our students and their families, and then work with (and not upon) these communities to address those identified problems. This won’t happen, however, if we continue to hide behind aggregate data.

Krista Kaput is a Master of Public Policy student at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. You can contact her at kaput002@umn.edu with any comments or questions.