PORTLAND — Maine’s 2011 high school graduates ranked fifth in the nation on the ACT college placement test, behind three other New England states and New York, according to ACT scores released Wednesday.

Education experts cautioned against putting too much stock in the numbers, because only 9 percent of Maine’s most recent graduating class took the test.

Those students probably were trying to get into elite colleges and don’t necessarily reflect the average Maine student, said David Connerty-Marin, director of communications for the Maine Department of Education.

“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 Wednesday, Maine students averaged a composite score of 23.3 out of a possible 36 on the ACT. Only Massachusetts (24.2), Connecticut (23.9), New Hampshire (23.7) and New York (23.4) performed better.

Only about 1,500 Maine students, or 9 percent, took the test, fewer than in any other state, in terms of percentage and hard numbers. By comparison, 18 percent of New Hampshire’s 2011 graduating class took it, 22 percent in Massachusetts, 26 percent  in Connecticut and 28 percent  in New York.

In seven states — Colorado, Kentucky, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi and Tennessee — all high school seniors take the test.

The SAT and the ACT are both college placement examinations that test students on mathematics, reading and writing. The ACT also includes science and social studies, while the SAT involves more reasoning, said Daniel Hupp, director of standards and assessment for Maine’s Department of Education.

More students take the SAT in New England and on the West Coast. 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 in any other state. At least partly because of that, Maine was last in average SAT score.

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

Maine students are improving their ACT scores, the numbers show. In 1994, Maine seniors earned an average of 21.6 on the ACT, nearly two points less than they did this year.

Also, more Maine students are taking the ACT. In 1994, only 2 percent of Maine students took the test. Hupp said that 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 desired. Also, in the last decade, more colleges began accepting both tests. So more students have begun taking both, and submitting results of only the test on which they do better.

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