The first class in Tennessee to get a free do-over on ACT testing is also the first class to push the state over an average score of 20 on the national college entrance exam, an indication that the state’s investment in its ACT Retake initiative is paying off.

The state’s average moved from 19.9 to 20.1 for its public school students in 2017, according to results announced on Tuesday.

The upward tick was reflected in districts in Memphis, Nashville and Chattanooga, as well as the state’s school turnaround district. (Knox County remained at 21.1, the highest urban score in the state.)

While nominal, the statewide bump of two-tenths of a point puts Tennessee on track to reach the national average of 21 by 2020. It’s also more than a full point over the state’s average score in 2011, where Tennessee mostly languished before launching a targeted strategy in 2015 to up its game and adding the ACT test as a measure of district accountability.

The chart below includes scores so far, as well as targets for the next three years.

Scores past 2017 are goals set by the state department to reach an ACT composite of 21. (Source: TDOE)

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen credits higher statewide standards among the reasons for the improvement, along with ACT prep classes being increasingly incorporated into students’ junior years at the district level.

But it’s the ACT Retake Day that appears to have buoyed the average score past the threshold of 20 for the first time.

The state has paid for the first round of ACT tests statewide since 2009, but spent $760,000 last fall to pay for a do-over for any student who wanted it. About 26,000 students took the state up on the offer, and 40 percent got higher scores. Of those, 1,331 more students earned the 21 necessary to receive the state’s HOPE Scholarship, which provides up to $16,000 toward in-state tuition over four years.

The increase also means that fewer Tennessee students will have to take remedial courses once they get to college.

“These results are incredibly encouraging,” McQueen said in a statement. “More students are unlocking HOPE scholarship funds and creating options for their future, and we are on our way to meet our goal of a statewide average of 21 by 2020.”

In an interview later, she framed the ACT retake initiative as an equity issue, especially since the state is expanding the program this month to allow students to retake the test during school hours and at their own schools. Last year, students had to find transportation to get to a testing site on a Saturday. The state has set aside up to $2.5 million this year to pay for the expansion.

“This has given kids who financially couldn’t retake the test an opportunity to learn from the first test-taking experience, see where they were weak, and then try again, with the state now paying for both tests,” she said. “We’re leveling the playing field.”

Data shows that students who retake college entrance exams tend to do better, particularly students scoring between 16 and 18. “We have seen the most improvement with kids who have been the farthest behind on the ACT,” McQueen said.

Tennessee is one of 18 states that require all students to take the ACT or SAT and uses the test as a barometer for college and career readiness.  

When the ACT released its 2017 scores nationally last month, Tennessee’s average composite was 19.8, but that number reflected a blend of public and private school tests. It also was not necessarily based on the highest scores if students took the test multiple times, even though the highest scores are used for entrance and placement into postsecondary studies. The numbers released on Tuesday reflect the best scores for public school students.

In Memphis, the increase was especially welcome news, only weeks after seeing student growth scores plummet for grades 3-11 under a new state test. The average ACT score for Shelby County Schools rose from 17.5 to 17.8, while the Achievement School District’s average climbed from 15.4 to 15.6.

“ACT scores can open so many doors for students who want to continue their education after graduation,” said Superintendent Dorsey Hopson of Tennessee’s largest district. “I’m excited more students are taking the test and that we’re seeing growth across the board, particularly in the percentage of students who can earn HOPE scholarship funds.”

Statewide, Germantown Municipal School District had the state’s highest composite for the second year in a row, posting a 25.5 average, up from 24.9. Additionally, White County in Middle Tennessee had the state’s largest one-year gain by raising its average by 1.7 points to 20.3.

Three districts had more than three-quarters of their students scoring at or above a 21 on the ACT: Germantown Municipal School District (83.1 percent), Williamson County Schools (79.8 percent), and Collierville Schools (76 percent).

Find full district- and state-level results on the State Department of Education’s website.