MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota led the pack in ACT scores for 2017, among states that offered the test to all students.

The state's average composite score of 21.5 was a half point higher than the national average of 21. Minnesota also made progress closing the achievement gap in college readiness exams, with rising scores for African American, Latino and Pacific Islander students.

"Congratulations to Minnesota students, teachers, school boards, and administrators on this tremendous achievement," Gov. Mark Dayton remarked Thursday. "Ranking number one in the nation confirms the overall quality of our state’s public education system."

According to the ACT's annual report on college readiness two million 2017 high school graduates, including 61,000 in Minnesota, took the exam which covers English, math, reading and science.

ACT composite scores have remained relatively stable for the past 25 years, but even that is remarkable considering that number of students taking the test has increased greatly. In Minnesota the number taking the exam has tripled in the past five years because the State pays for tests, and actively encourages students to participate.

Perfect Scores

In Minnesota 79 students -- or one-tenth of one percent - had perfect scores of 36.

"We always tell them this is not a measure of their whole ability or future success. It’s simply a chance to create opportunities for themselves," Anne Marie Plante, the coordinator for advanced academics at Minneapolis South High School, told KARE.

South seniors Ingrid Zoll and Anna Mulhern took the ACT as juniors and were both pleasantly surprised to learn they'd reached the pinnacle.

"I was expecting like a 30 if I was lucky," Zoll recalled. "I thought I did okay, but I didn’t think I did great!"

Both Zoll and Mulhern have taken advanced placement science classes at South, but neither had any professional coaching before the test. They did take advantage of every practice run they could.

"I got the official ACT study guide and just took so many practice tests," Mulhern told KARE.

"When you make mistakes, you go look at what you did wrong. And a lot of that is applicable to a lot of other questions."

South High Principal Ray Aponte gave both girls a video shout-out on the school's Facebook page, presenting them with orange socks bearing the South Tiger logo. But Aponte and fellow administrators say they're equally proud of the other students who took the ACT and made academic progress.

"Over the past five years our school progress on all four measures of college readiness has increased steadily, so we’re very proud of that, and that’s across all population groups," Plante said.

"In every respect, you can think of we’re a highly diverse school and we’re proud of that. That’s a very important part of who we are."

Zoll and Mulhern kept their perfect scores in perspective.

"This test number is super cool but it doesn’t change who I am," Zoll explained. "I still need to work hard, and I still need to put a lot of work into all my classes and all my tests."

Mulhern said students, regardless of how well they performed, should keep their eyes on the big picture.

"This number doesn’t define you. One person and their dreams are so much bigger than how you did on one test on one day."

And both girls acknowledged they have advantages not shared by all of their classmates, including having English as a first language, stable homes and parents who have time to help with their studies.

"I don’t have to work at an afterschool job, so I had time after school and on weekends to look at the huge ACT books we got from the library," Zoll noted. "We need to recognize we had the time and the ability to study while a lot of people don’t."