U.S. High School Graduates Showing Little Progress in College Readiness

ACT Issues Call to Action to Improve Education System

IOWA CITY, Iowa—U.S. high school graduates continue to make little progress in college and career readiness, according to The Condition of College & Career Readiness 2015, the latest annual student readiness report from ACT, released today. The lack of growth has prompted ACT to issue a call to action to policymakers, educators, students and parents, urging them to do their part to help improve educational outcomes and support college and career readiness for all students.“

The needle is barely moving on college and career readiness, and that means far too many young people will continue to struggle after they graduate from high school,” said ACT Chief Executive Officer Jon Whitmore. “This should be a wake-up call for our nation."

The report, based on data from a record 1.9 million ACT-tested students—nearly 60 percent of the 2015 U.S. graduating class—shows very little change in overall college readiness over the past several years.

This year, 40 percent of graduates showed strong readiness, meeting the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks in at least three of the four core subject areas (English, math, reading and science). That percentage has stayed virtually flat over the past five years.

In contrast, 31 percent of students did not meet readiness levels in any of the four subject areas. This figure is unchanged from the past two years and slightly higher than in 2011 and 2012.

These general findings from ACT mirror those of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and other large-scale academic achievement studies, which show that U.S. students have not progressed over the past several years in terms of their preparedness for success after high school.

The ACT numbers translate to serious repercussions for students making the transition to college and career. Previous ACT research suggests that fewer than 20 percent of those students who met none of the benchmarks are likely to earn a two- or four-year college degree within six years. That compares to nearly 60 percent of students who met at least three benchmarks who will likely earn a degree.

“We’ve got to move past the numbers and focus on how this will impact students’ lives,” said Whitmore. “We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of U.S. high school graduates who won’t earn a two- or four-year college degree because they aren’t academically prepared to do so. In the increasingly competitive job market, where decent jobs are requiring more advanced skills and training, this is a huge problem.

”Readiness levels remain weakest among underserved minority groups. African American, American Indian, Hispanic and native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander students trail far behind their white and Asian peers in readiness in each of the four subject areas—as is also true in college enrollment and graduation rates—with no signs of closing those gaps.

“Our nation’s most underserved students too often are being neglected, trapped in poor education systems and lacking access to critical information and resources in order to navigate the system,” said ACT President Jon Erickson. “We simply must do better. It’s time to step up our efforts to provide them and all students with quality tools, skills and behaviors that prepare them for success.”


ACT Issues Call to Action

The ACT report issues a call to action to federal, state and local policymakers and agency heads, urging them to work to improve the education system as a whole.

“We can’t accept this lack of progress,” said Erickson. “It will have a long-term negative impact on our nation’s economic growth, as our education and economic agendas are intertwined. It’s time to face the fact that educational outcomes aren’t improving fast enough. We must take decisive steps to help more students over that barrier.”

The report offers specific recommendations to the education community at large to help improve educational outcomes.

  • Promote system alignment—Encourage education system alignment so that all components of the system—standards, curricula, instruction and assessments—work together to achieve desired goals.
  • Support and develop teachers—Develop robust teacher evaluation systems based on student growth, strengthen teacher education and professional development programs and increase teacher pay.
  • Safeguard and use data responsibly—Ensure that student data are used in a way that balances the potential to help students improve with the responsibility to ensure students’ privacy and confidentiality.

ACT also calls on students and their parents to take control of their own futures, urging them to take a more active role in planning and preparing for success after high school.

“Don’t count on the system to keep you informed and aware of what you need to do,” said Erickson. “That’s the path that too many are following, and it’s clearly not working. Take charge early in the student’s educational career, learn what it takes to succeed and make sure you are getting what you need.”

ACT offers free solutions to help students, parents and counselors get a head start on finding their passion and planning for the future. These solutions include ACT Profile, which is a free college and career planning community, and the World-of-Work Map, which guides students toward careers that match their interests based on their responses to the ACT Interest Inventory, completed by students when they register for the ACT test.


Gap Between Aspirations and Outcomes

ACT findings point to a gap between students’ aspirations and actual outcomes. Eighty-six percent of ACT-tested 2015 graduates—approximately 1.6 million students—said they aspired to enroll in postsecondary education of some kind.

Based on previous research, however, ACT projects only around 69 percent—approximately 1.3 million graduates—actually will enroll. This means more than 300,000 students who may have college aspirations will not actually attend a two- or four-year college this fall.

“We must work to close this aspiration gap and ensure that more students reach their goal of continuing their education,” said Erickson. “One big way to accomplish that goal is to make sure more students are aware of and ready for college and career when they graduate from high school.”


About the ACT

The ACT is a curriculum-based achievement test that measures the skills taught in schools and deemed important for success in first-year college courses. The content of the ACT is informed by results of the ACT National Curriculum Survey®, conducted every three to four years among thousands of elementary, middle and high school teachers and instructors of first-year college courses across the United States. The data obtained in the survey allow ACT to ensure that its assessments measure the skills most important for success after high school.

ACT research shows that students who meet the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks are more likely to persist in college and earn a degree than those who don’t. The benchmarks specify the minimum score students must earn on each of the four ACT subject tests to have about a 75 percent chance of earning a grade of C or higher and a 50 percent chance of earning a B or higher in a typical credit-bearing first-year college course in that subject area.

The ACT was administered as a required statewide achievement test in 13 states for the graduating class of 2015, allowing these states to monitor student progress in college and career readiness as well as track school, district and state performance over time. For the 2016 graduating class, that number will grow to 18 states, plus three additional states that fund the ACT on an optional basis.

The national and state ACT Condition of College & Career Readiness 2015 reports can be viewed and downloaded for free on the ACT website at:  www.act.org/readiness/2015.