New Study: Rigorous High School Core Curriculum Can Help Close Racial & Income Gaps in College Success

Posted September 20, 2010

IOWA CITY, Iowa—Racial and income gaps in college success rates can be narrowed by ensuring that all students take a rigorous core curriculum in high school, according to a new study by ACT, Inc. The findings show that racial/ ethnic and family income gaps are reduced—in some cases dramatically—when entering students are academically prepared for college.

“Our country has allowed achievement gaps to exist for far too long,” said Cynthia B. Schmeiser, ACT Education Division president and chief operating officer. “The time has come to address this problem head on. The research tells us that academic preparation—taking rigorous coursework in high school—is a significant factor in eliminating these intolerable, longstanding inequities.”

The ACT report, entitled “Mind the Gaps: How College Readiness Narrows Achievement Gaps in College Success,” concludes that the best way to prepare underrepresented racial/ethnic minority and lower-income students for postsecondary success is through a rigorous high school core curriculum that focuses on the essential knowledge and skills for college and career readiness.

The study analyzed the postsecondary outcomes of tens of thousands of students who had taken the ACT college admission and placement exam in high school. The college outcomes considered included enrollment, need for remediation, first- to second-year retention, course grades, overall grade point average and degree completion.

ACT data show that gaps exist between underrepresented minority and white students and between lower family income and higher family income groups in each of those areas. However, the gaps are significantly reduced, in some cases by two-thirds or more, for students who are college and career ready as evidenced by their meeting or exceeding all four College Readiness Benchmarks (English, math, reading, and science) on the ACT exam.

ACT College Readiness Benchmarks specify the minimum scores needed on each ACT subject-area test to indicate a student is ready to succeed (50 percent chance of earning a “B” or higher or about a 75 percent chance of earning a “C” or higher) in a typical first-year, credit-bearing college course in that subject area. The benchmarks are based on actual student performance in college coursework.

The report calls for college and career readiness standards that are aligned among K-12, postsecondary education, and workforce training programs. It also suggests that student readiness for college and career should be monitored early and often.

“Our findings show that monitoring student progress in becoming college and career ready throughout K to 12 and identifying and intervening with those students who are off target are critical steps in helping to maximize their success in all forms of postsecondary education,” Schmeiser said.

The report makes three major recommendations to help close racial/ethnic and income gaps in college success.

  1. Ensure that all students take at least a core curriculum in high school.
  2. Focus high school core courses on the essential standards for college and career readiness.
  3. Offer all students rigorous high school core courses that cover the essential knowledge and skills needed for college and career in sufficient depth and intensity.