MIAMI (CBSMiami) — Florida’s high school students are making progress in college entrance exam scores.

CBS4 news partner The Miami Herald reports ACT scores are inching upward in the state.

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However, the state still lags significantly behind the nation as a whole, according to class of 2012 score results released Wednesday.

The state’s students posted an average composite score of 19.8 on the ACT college admission test, while students nationally averaged a 21.1 composite score.

Florida’s average score was among the lowest of all states — only Arizona, Mississippi and Tennessee did worse.

Miami-Dade and Broward averages were even lower than Florida’s norm: Miami-Dade students averaged an 18.3, while Broward students averaged a score of 19.

“Florida is slightly underperforming,” said Paul Weeks, vice president of career and college readiness at the ACT. Still, Weeks added, “There are some encouraging signs.”

One of them: Florida student participation in the ACT has increased dramatically, rising by more than 26 percent since 2008.

Roughly seven out of 10 Florida graduates now take the ACT, a trend that encourages more students to focus on college and career planning.

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ACT participation rates in Florida have risen so high that the test has eclipsed the SAT in popularity among students — less than 65 percent of Florida graduates took the SAT last year.

Getting more students to take the ACT also makes it more challenging to boost average scores, however, as higher participation rates can sometimes drag scores down.

Both tests are now neck-and-neck in terms of significance nationally.

After the release of Wednesday’s ACT numbers, the Florida Department of Education emphasized that Florida had slightly higher average scores in all four subject areas of the test compared to last year, and higher-than-average participation in the test among minority students.

More than 56 percent of Florida students taking the ACT are minorities, compared to roughly 36 percent nationwide.

“For the fifth year in a row, Florida has expanded participation and continued to see performance growth on the ACT,” Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson said in a statement. “There is still work to be done and room to grow; however, I am pleased to share this good news and applaud our students and teachers for their hard work.”

A key issue going forward, both in Florida and nationally, is how well prepared high school graduates are for college-level work.

The ACT found that 60 percent of test-takers nationally (and 68 percent of those in Florida) scored low enough to be deemed “at risk” of not succeeding in college.

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