How does Kentucky rank against other states on the ACT?

This is a question we get asked frequently. Before we can intelligently answer, we first have to explain why it is misleading to rank Kentucky’s overall average scores for all students against other states. Frequent blog readers already know the answer, but it bears repeating for new readers.

Table 1 shows a comparison of Kentucky’s and Louisiana’s 2017 ACT composite scores by race with some related demographic data for the numbers of graduates in each racial group and the percentage of all graduates represented by each racial group.

Note that 100 percent of their graduates in both states took the ACT in 2017, so this is a reasonable comparison.

Table 1

Kentucky Vs. Louisiana for ACT Composite by Race 2017

The top line of data in Table 1 for “All Students” shows the overall average ACT Composite Score for both states for all 2017 high school graduates. Since this covers all students, the related percentage figure for both states is 100 percent, of course.

Notice that the Average ACT Composite Score for all students for Kentucky was 20.0 and for Louisiana it was only 19.5.

So, Kentucky’s education system performs better, right?


Notice that the relative performance picture changes rather dramatically when we look at the scores broken out by race. Except for blacks and Asian students, Kentucky trails ACT Composite Score performance in Louisiana, often by a rather large amount considering the ACT is a 36-point test.

In particular, note that Louisiana’s whites outscored Kentucky’s whites by 0.6 point, which is a notable difference on this test.

While you look at the data for white students, notice that even as of 2017 Kentucky’s school population remains heavily white, with 71 percent of all the Bluegrass State’s students coming from this one racial group. In Louisiana, by sharp comparison, whites don’t even make up the majority of graduates, totaling only 48 percent in 2017.

Also note that with the exception of the relatively small number of Asian graduates in both states, whites in both states score much higher than the other minority groups. Therein lies the key to this paradox of how Kentucky can look better when we only consider overall average scores but then that picture falls apart when we break the data out by race. Due to the demographic differences, when we look only at overall scores, we are comparing many whites in Kentucky to lower-scoring racial minority graduates in Louisiana. That artificially biases the results in Kentucky’s favor.

By the way, Kentucky’s racial mix is also very different from the overall national group of ACT-tested graduates in 2017, as Figure 1 shows.

Figure 1

Kentucky and National ACT Racial Demographics in 2017

If we only compare Kentucky’s overall average scores to those across the nation, we are matching a notable number of Kentucky white scores, 19 percent of them, to racial minority scores elsewhere. Since achievement gaps like those we see in Table 1 are a problem everywhere, that winds up giving Kentucky an unfair advantage in those comparisons.

So, to get a better idea about how Kentucky’s education system really compares to other states, we need to break the scores out by race. Because Kentucky is predominantly white, and all states have enough whites to report scores for this racial group, we focus on white scores.

When we talk about state comparisons using the ACT, there is another consideration, as well. Unlike in Kentucky, most states still don’t require all students to take the ACT. For example, in Maine in 2017 the ACT reports that only 8 percent of the graduates took the ACT. This isn’t a valid random sample of Maine students, either. We have no way to know if the Maine results represent mostly the very strongest or the weakest students. There is no way to tell.

Thus, we cannot intelligently compare a state like Kentucky, where 100 percent of the graduates were tested in 2017, to a state like Maine. In fact, the ACT, Inc. itself told us several years ago that they recommend not doing so, and ACT spokesperson Ed Colby provided similar cautions in a Courier-Journal article about ACT scores in 2015.

So, how does Kentucky compare? Click the “Read more” link to find out.

Let’s look at the other states that also tested 100 percent of their graduates with the ACT.

To start, Figure 2 shows how Kentucky compared back in 2014 to other states that tested 100 percent of their graduates in both 2014 and 2017.

Figure 2

States that Tested 100 PCT in 2014 and 2017 - 2014 Composite Scores for Whites

As you can see, we were tied for dead last with North Carolina.

Move forward to 2017, and Figure 3 shows how we compare this year against the same states.

Figure 3

States that Tested 100 PCT in 2014 and 2017 - 2017 Composite Scores for Whites

As you can see, between 2014 and 2017 there hasn’t been much improvement for Kentucky’s white students on the ACT. Only Mississippi slid very slightly behind us.

Clearly, when we examine the trends over time, Kentucky hasn’t moved very much compared to those states that we can reasonably compare ourselves to.

I also did a similar graph that includes all the states that tested 100 percent of their graduates in 2017. That is in Figure 4. As you can see, a lot of states that did test every graduate with the ACT in 2017 didn’t do that back in 2014.

Figure 4

ACT Composite Scores for Whites for All States that Tested 100 PCT of Grads in 2017

We look somewhat better on this 2017 only comparison, but there is a catch.

Three states that tested 100 percent of their graduates last year – Illinois, Michigan and North Dakota – didn’t test all graduates with the ACT in 2017 and don’t appear in Figure 4. All three notably outscored Kentucky last year. Their scores remain notably higher than Kentucky’s in 2017, but a precise comparison really isn’t possible since they didn’t test every graduate. Still, it is likely that these three states continue to outperform the Bluegrass State. Had they continued 100 percent testing, Kentucky would almost undoubtedly have been pushed further to the right on Figure 4.

It is also worth noting that two states started 100 percent testing in 2017. They are Arkansas and Oklahoma. Both placed somewhat lower than Kentucky, but that is typically true when states start a new testing program. If those states had not started 100 percent testing in 2017, Kentucky would have only outscored three states in 2017.

Data Sources:

2017 data used to assemble this blog come from the ACT, Inc.’s “The Condition of College and Career Readiness 2017” web page.

The scores for whites come from Table 2.3 in each state’s “Profile Report,” available in links as you scroll down the web page.

The demographic data for the nation and Kentucky are also found in Table 2.3 in the Kentucky Profile Report.

The 2014 data come from Table 2.5 in each state’s 2014 Profile Report. Those are available from links on this web page.