By the Numbers

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Median: 20.0 (In 2006, the average ACT score nationwide was 21.1.)

The ACT exam—the acronym stands for American College Test—is, along with the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test), one of two national college admissions exams taken, usually, by high-school juniors. In the past the ACT used to be optional for high-school students in Illinois, but since 2001, state law has required that every high-school junior take the exam as part of the Prairie State Achievement Examination. The ACT is now a key part of the battery of standardized tests that students take—and that school administrators use to measure their students' performance.

The highest-scoring school in the region is Northside College Prep in Chicago, with a remarkable 27.8. In fact, three of the top five schools on our chart are CPS high schools; along with Northside College Prep, they are Walter Payton College Prep (26.7) and Whitney Young Magnet High School (26.2). Those schools are in a class with such suburban standouts as New Trier's Winnetka campus (26.8) and Hinsdale Central (25.8).

But the three Chicago high schools are all selective institutions that take only the brightest students. Overall, while just one in eight CPS high schools shows an average ACT score exceeding 20, two-thirds of suburban high schools surpass that score. Thus places like Jones College Prep (23.6), Von Steuben Metropolitan Science High School (21.1), and Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep Academy (21.0)—each of them a Chicago high school—look great relative to other city high schools. But in a regional context, they are less impressive.

On the other hand, few suburban schools contend with the high incidence of poverty that CPS schools do. At Jones, 55.6 percent of students qualify as low-income; at Von Steuben, 49.2 percent; and at Brooks, 65.8 percent. Children from low-income families don't have easy access at home to the resources that support and enhance school instruction. No suburban schools scoring like these three have similar rates of poverty. 

Median (PSAE): reading, 157; math, 155; science, 156 // Median (meets/exceeds): reading, 56.3; math, 51.3; science, 46.1

Students in Illinois' elementary and high schools take the Prairie State Achievement Examination (PSAE); in high school, students take the PSAE in 11th grade. (Some schools show no PSAE scores, either because they are new schools adding a grade each year and had not yet added 11th grade by the test date, or because they are junior campuses comprising only freshmen and sophomores.) The exams test skills in reading, math, and science, and scores can range from 120 to 200. Although the standard is to report a composite ACT score, the PSAE's categorical scores cannot be combined as easily and are reported individually. The "meets/exceeds" figures show the percentage of students at a school that met or exceeded the goals established by the state.