PORTLAND — Maine high school students are the fourth smartest in the nation, and also the fourth smartest in New England, according to the national ACT scores released this morning.

But education experts cautioned about putting too much stock in the numbers, since only 9 percent of Maine’s most recent graduating class took the test.

According to David Connerty-Marin, the director of communications for the Maine Department of Education, the Maine high school students who take the ACT were likely college-bound and trying to get into elite universities. So their scores don’t necessarily reflect the ability of all Maine students.

“This is a relatively small group, and they’re self-selecting, so the numbers are higher than they would be if every Maine student took it,” Connerty-Marin said. “Because of that, it’s hard to glean too much from these numbers.”

According to the statistics released today, Maine students averaged 23.3 out of possible 36 on the ACT this year. Of the 50 states, only Massachusetts (24.2), Connecticut (23.9) and New Hampshire (23.7) performed better.

But only about 1,500 Maine seniors took the test, less than any other state in terms of both percentage and hard numbers.

For example, 18 percent New Hampshire’s most recent graduating class took the test, Massachusetts had 22 percent and Connecticut had 26 percent. Seven states – Colorado, Kentucky, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi and Tennessee – had 100 percent of their seniors take the test.

Much like the SAT, the ACT is a college-placement exam. Both test students on math, reading and writing, but the ACT also includes science and social studies, and the SAT involves more reasoning, said Daniel Hupp, the director of standards and assessment for Maine’s Department of Education.

In New England and the West Coast, more students take the SAT, the numbers show. But in the Midwest, South and Mountain West regions, students generally take the ACT. Many students take both, regardless of where they live.

In Maine, 92 percent of the 2010 graduating seniors took the SAT, significantly more than any other state in the country. At least partly because of that, Maine students finished dead last in average SAT score, a stark difference from their successes on the ACT.

There’s a clear correlation between the number of students who take the test from a given state, and how well that state performs, Hupp said. Of course, there are exceptions. Students in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina did poorly on both tests.

Maine students are improving their SAT scores, the numbers show. In 1994, Maine seniors earned an average 21.6 on the ACT, nearly two points less than they did this year. And more Maine students are also taking the ACT. In 1994, only 2 percent of Maine students took the test, compared to this year’s 9 percent.

Hupp said in 2006, the state started paying for Maine students to take the SAT, which freed up money for students to take the ACT if they so desired. Also, in the last decade, more universities began accepting both tests. So more students have begun taking both, and only submitting the test they do better on.

“Schools used to only take one or the other,” Hupp said. “Now, it’s either/or, and some students choose to take both and use the results of whatever one presents them in the best light.”

Jason Singer can be reached at 791-6437 or:
jsinger@pressherald.com