ACT Research Points to Continued Gap Between High School Preparation, College Expectations

Posted April 17, 2013


ACT Research Points to Continued Gap Between High School Preparation, College Expectations

IOWA CITY, IOWA—Findings from the latest ACT National Curriculum Survey®, released today, point to a continued gap between what high schools are teaching and what colleges expect their incoming students to know. ACT’s report, which focuses on the policy implications of the survey results, suggests this gap may indicate a lack of alignment between high school and college curricula that could be contributing to the nation’s college and career readiness problem. The survey results show more than three times as many high school teachers as college instructors believe their students are prepared to succeed in college courses.

“When high school teachers believe their students are well prepared for college-level courses, but colleges disagree, we have a problem,” said Jon Erickson, ACT’s president of education. “If we are to improve the college and career readiness of our nation’s high school graduates, we must make sure that our standards are aligned between high school and college. States have raised expectations by increasing educational standards over the past few years. This report provides an important reminder that we also need to bring school curricula up to the same heightened expectations.”

The vast majority (89 percent) of high school teachers surveyed by ACT reported that their students are either “well” or “very well” prepared for college-level work in their subject area after leaving their courses. In contrast, only around one fourth (26%) of college instructors reported that their incoming students are either “well” or “very well” prepared for first-year credit-bearing courses in their subject area. These percentages are virtually unchanged from those in ACT’s 2009 curriculum survey.

ACT conducts its National Curriculum Survey every three to five years. The survey collects data about the skills and knowledge that are taught in schools and expected for success in college-level coursework in English, writing, math, reading and science. The results help inform ACT’s assessments—including the ACT® and the new ACT Aspire™ system now under development—to ensure that they measure the content and skills important for success in college and career. The availability of this information means that ACT assessments are being developed with the absolute latest research and evidence available.

This year’s study was the first in which ACT surveyed elementary school teachers. The responses from those teachers will guide development of the content of ACT Aspire assessments for elementary students, which will be launched in the spring of 2014.

“You can’t do a good job of measuring whether students are learning the necessary skills to be on track for college and career readiness without knowing what educators are actually teaching and what is expected of students,” said Erickson. “Our research has been providing that information to ACT—along with educators and policymakers—for more than 20 years.”

To help address the problems revealed in the research, ACT recommends that more be done to educate K–12 teachers about the skills students need to be ready to succeed in college and/or workforce training programs and how those skills should be taught and reinforced at each grade level. The report also urges greater collaboration between K–12 and postsecondary educators on matters pertaining to curricula and classroom materials.

The survey results also pointed to a number of other findings, including the following:

  • Many classrooms may need better access to computer technology in order to effectively administer new digital assessments aligned to college- and career-ready standards.
  • State and local efforts to implement the new college- and career-ready standards have not yet achieved their goals. Familiarity with the improved standards varies among teachers, and it is likely that not enough teachers are yet ready for the necessary changes in curriculum that may accompany the switch to the standards.
  • Despite implementation challenges, K–12 teachers tend to be optimistic about the value and potential effectiveness of college- and career-ready standards, suggesting most will support the effort to improve standards and will work to make them successful in the classroom.

The ACT National Curriculum Survey 2012 results are based on a national sample of 9,937 participants, including elementary, middle school and high school teachers and college instructors in English, writing, math, reading and science. The report, “ACT National Curriculum Survey 2012—Policy Implications on Preparing for Higher Standards,” may be viewed or downloaded for free on ACT’s website at: