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Utah's high school seniors scored slightly lower than the national averages on the ACT college readiness tests last year. But that could be a matter of apples and oranges.

When it's apples and apples — comparing Utah with the 11 other states that give the test to virtually every senior — the state shines, says Mark Peterson, spokesman for the Utah State Office of Education.

Utah had the highest score among the 12 states that gave the ACT test to almost every senior, a composite of 20.8 from math, English, reading and science scores. That was up from 20.7 last year.

The ACT's College Readiness Report on 2014 graduates was released early Wednesday.

States where mostly college-bound seniors take the test do better. The national average ACT composite score this year was 21, although only 57 percent, nationally, take the test on a typical year.

"All Utah students, their parents and their teachers can take pride in this achievement," State Superintendent of Public Instruction Martell Menlove said in a news release Wednesday. "What makes this report so significant is that it includes all Utah students. The number of Utah Hispanic students taking the ACT has nearly tripled in the past five years. The number of Pacific Islander students taking the test has nearly doubled in four years. These scores represent our school population as a whole, not just those who plan to attend college."

More than 35,000 graduating seniors took the ACT last school year, a number that rose 41 percent in four years.

While Utah may shine among those states giving the ACT to almost every senior, the report does reveal a grim truth about graduates' readiness for college throughout the nation, said David Buhler, Utah commissioner of higher education.

Only 24 percent of Utah seniors and 26 percent of seniors nationally scored well enough in all four subjects — math, science, reading and English — to be considered truly ready for college.

Nearly a third — 32 percent of Utah seniors and 31 percent of seniors nationally — did not meet the college-ready benchmark in a single subject.

"That tells us we're not doing as well as we should," Buhler said. "We need to keep pushing."

Utah's data show one way in which the state differs markedly from the nation: many more students who say they're college-bound end up not enrolling the fall after graduation.

While 85 percent of Utah seniors in 2013 said they aspired to go to college, only 40 percent went the next fall. Nationally, 87 percent said they were college-bound, but 69 percent actually enrolled.

Buhler said there's an explanation for much of Utah's gap: the lower missionary age for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The Salt Lake City-based church lowered the missionary age for men to 18 and for women to 19 in the fall of 2012. So Mormons among the class of 2013 may have opted for missions rather than college.

Buhler said data show that 61.5 percent of Utah seniors start college within three years, which puts the state closer to the national figures.

"It's still a concern. Even at 61.5 percent, we're losing 20 percent or 25 percent," he said.

Utah's higher education system is trying to do something about that.

The state is one of 12 that got grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to do a feasibility study on streamlining the college application process. That could result in making it easier for students to apply to Utah colleges.

And a pilot project that began in eight schools last fall is expanding to 50 this November. Schools set aside one full day for students to work on college applications, get help with essays and get logins for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

"A number of students [last year] were like, 'Oh! I can go to college? I didn't think I could.' "

Bridging the aspirational gap so more students go to college — whether applied-technology, two-year or four-year — is the goal, Buhler said.

"We're trying to work on these barriers."

Twitter: @KristenMoulton