Minnesota students' scores on the ACT college entrance exam held steady this year — enough for the state to hold on to its top spot among states where nearly all high school graduates take the test.

Graduating seniors earned an average composite score of 21.4 out of a possible 36, according to test results released Wednesday. That was in line with last year's state average of 21.3, and an average of 21.5 two years ago. Minnesota students tested better than the national average of 20.7.

Among the 17 states where nearly all graduates take the ACT, Minnesota students had the highest average score. About 95% of the state's graduating seniors took the test, which measures students' readiness for college in English, math, reading and science.

State Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker said she was pleased with Minnesota's high participation rate and competitive scores, though she sees room for improvement.

Persistent gaps between different students groups in both test scores and the rate of students meeting the ACT's college readiness benchmarks are concerning, Ricker said.

"Looking at that overall score being strong again, [we can] be proud — but not satisfied," she said. "When we look behind it, we see where the work is, and we want to roll up our sleeves and start doing it together."

Nationwide, the percentage of high school graduates meeting the ACT's college readiness benchmarks in math and reading continues a long-term decline, with fewer students hitting those marks than at any time in the last 15 years. But in Minnesota, 30% of test takers met college readiness standards across all four subjects — the same as last year. Meanwhile, 31% of Minnesota graduates failed to meet readiness benchmarks in any subject, down slightly from 2018. The percent of Minnesota students who met benchmarks in each subject category remained above national averages.

ACT officials noted in a news release that wide gaps remain in proficiency levels between students from low-income families or those who would be first in their families to attend college. CEO Marten Roorda said the testing organization is encouraged by the progress of some groups on a national level, and singled out test-score increases among Asian-American students.

"While the data suggest that a growing number of U.S. high school graduates are inadequately prepared for success in college courses, it's encouraging to see groups of students who are bucking that trend," Roorda said.

In Minnesota, the percent of students meeting college readiness benchmarks in at least three of the four subject areas has mostly held steady across racial groups in recent years.

With the average score of 21.4, Minnesota students outperformed their peers in neighboring states with similar levels of test participation; the average score in Wisconsin was 20.3, and in North Dakota it was 19.9.

In South Dakota, where about 75% of students take the test, and in Iowa, where 66% of students sit for the ACT, scores were slightly higher than in Minnesota. The average in both states was 21.6.

ACT officials announced earlier this fall that starting in September 2020, students will have the option of retaking individual sections of the test, rather than having to take the full exam as they aim for a better score.

The new option will come with limits: it will only be available to students who take the tests in national testing centers on Saturdays.

That's already how some students take the test, but many take them for free, as part of a school day.

The testing company also plans to expand its use of computer-based testing, rather than the traditional form of taking the test with paper and pencils.

In addition, students who send their scores to colleges starting next fall also will be able to combine their top performances on each test subject into a "superscore" calculated by the ACT.

Gustavus Adolphus College, Augsburg University, Concordia University-St. Paul, the College of St. Scholastica and the University of Minnesota, Crookston, are among 200 schools nationally that have made test scores optional for prospective students.

Erin Golden • 612-673-4790