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College & Career Readiness Improving Among U.S. High School Graduates

Pool of ACT-Tested Graduates Is Largest, Most Diverse in History

August 17 2011

IOWA CITY, Iowa—College and career readiness continues to increase among ACT-tested U.S. high school graduates, according to ACT’s yearly report, The Condition of College & Career Readiness 2011, released today. The findings also suggest, however, that much improvement is still needed to ensure that all students are ready for success when they graduate from high school.

Twenty-five percent of graduates in the class of 2011 who took the ACT® exam met or surpassed all four of the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks, suggesting they are ready to succeed academically in specific first-year college courses (English composition, college algebra, introductory social science and biology) without the need for remediation. This compares to 24 percent last year, marking the third consecutive year that overall college and career readiness has increased.

“American students are making incremental progress toward being ready to complete college-level work, but there’s still significant work to be done,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “In today’s knowledge-based economy, American children are competing with the rest of the world for jobs, and our country’s long-term economic security is directly tied to the quality of its public education. These ACT results are another sign that states need to raise their academic standards and commit to education reforms that accelerate student achievement.”

The ACT College Readiness Benchmarks, which are based on actual grades earned by students in college, specify the minimum scores needed on each ACT subject-area test (English, mathematics, reading and science) to indicate that a student has a 50 percent chance of earning a grade of B or higher or about a 75 percent chance of earning a C or higher in a typical credit-bearing first-year college course in that subject area.

“It’s encouraging to see the positive trend continuing, with more high school graduates showing they are ready to succeed academically at the next level,” said Jon Erickson, interim president of ACT’s Education Division. “Although growth has been slow, it has been consistent. Things appear to be moving in the right direction.”

The increase in overall college and career readiness can be attributed to gradual gains in math and science, the two subject areas in which students are least likely to be prepared. This year, 45 percent of test takers (compared to 43 percent last year) met or exceeded the ACT College Readiness Benchmark in math, while 30 percent (compared to 29 percent last year) met or exceeded the benchmark in science. In comparison, 66 percent and 52 percent met or surpassed the benchmarks in English and reading, respectively, both unchanged from last year.

At the same time, the ACT results continue to show an alarmingly high number of students who are graduating without all of the academic skills they need to succeed after high school. Nearly three in 10 test takers (28 percent) in the 2011 graduate class failed to meet any of the four ACT College Readiness Benchmarks, unchanged from last year.

“Too many students are still falling through the cracks,” said Erickson. “It’s important that we work hard to ensure that all young people graduate from high school with the skills they need to succeed in college and career.”

This year’s pool of ACT-tested graduates is the largest and most racially diverse in the 52-year history of the exam. More than 1.62 million 2011 graduates—49 percent of the entire U.S. graduating class—took the ACT, an all-time record number for the seventh year in a row. The proportion of African American and Hispanic/Latino test takers has grown from 19 percent in 2007 to a high of 26 percent in 2011.

Academic Readiness Is Only One Factor

The ACT is an achievement test that measures the academic skills and knowledge learned in school and validated as critical for success in college. Although academic readiness is a crucial factor impacting college and career readiness, ACT research points to three key dimensions of college and career readiness:

  1. Academic Readiness—Are students academically prepared to succeed in college or career? The ACT College Readiness Benchmarks measure this dimension of college readiness.
  2. Behavioral Readiness—Do students exhibit the right behaviors and attitude toward education to increase their chances for success? ACT research suggests the combination of academic readiness (as measured by the ACT) and academic behaviors (as measured by ACT’s ENGAGE™ program) provides a stronger prediction of college and career performance and success than does academic readiness alone.
  3. Educational and Career Planning—Are students planning for and following a path to success in their education and career? ACT research shows that students who take challenging courses are much more likely than those who don’t to be ready for college and career. Proactive career assessment, exploration and planning activities encourage students to consider career options so they can plan their coursework accordingly.

“Assessing what students have learned so far is a vital element in helping them to improve, but college and career readiness is very complex,” said Erickson. “With more and more students across the country participating in testing, it’s important that test results are not overemphasized as a single answer to the readiness problem. We are committed to identifying the various factors that ensure success. The ACT is used for multiple goals and purposes beyond admissions and predicting college outcomes, such as course placement, counseling and accountability.”

Recommendations to Improve Readiness

The ACT report points to policies and practices that states, districts and schools can implement to systemically increase the percentage of their students who are ready for college-level work.

  • Early Monitoring and Intervention—In order for students to be ready for college and career when they graduate, their progress must be monitored closely. Deficiencies in foundational skills must be identified and remediated in upper elementary and middle school. In addition, age-appropriate career assessment, exploration and planning activities, when introduced early, can encourage students to consider and focus on personally relevant career options so they can plan and adjust their high school coursework accordingly.
  • Essential Standards—States’ education standards must prepare all students for the rigors of college or career training programs. With the adoption of the Common Core State Standards by 45 states and the District of Columbia, most states have taken that first step to ensuring that all students are ready for college or career. It is imperative that policymakers and practitioners continue this advancement by aligning all aspects of their systems to college and career readiness.
  • Common Expectations—All states should be aligning college and career readiness standards to a rigorous core curriculum for all high school students whether they are bound for college or work. The levels of expectation for college readiness and workforce training readiness should be comparable.
  • Clear Performance Standards—States must define “how good is good enough” for college and career readiness. In addition to a consistent, rigorous set of essential K-12 content standards, states must define performance standards so that students, parents and teachers know how well students must perform academically to have a reasonable chance of success at college or on the job.
  • Rigorous High School Courses—Having appropriate and aligned standards, coupled with a core curriculum, will adequately prepare high school students only if the courses are truly challenging. That is, taking the right kinds of courses matters more than taking the right number of courses. Students who take a rigorous core curriculum should be ready for credit-bearing first-year college courses without remediation.
  • Data-Driven Decisions—States have been hard at work in developing longitudinal P-16 data systems; this work must continue and, where possible, accelerate. States must develop systems that allow schools and districts to closely monitor student performance at every stage of the learning pipeline, from preschool through the elementary, middle and high school grades, all the way through college. Use of a longitudinal data system enables educators to identify students who are in need of academic interventions at an early stage, thus giving teachers and students more time to strengthen these skills before graduation.

“If states, districts and schools will follow these recommendations, our research shows that students will benefit,” said Erickson. “And when young people benefit, so does our entire country. ACT will continue working hard to help identify solutions to the problems that impact college and career readiness in the United States.”

The full national and state-specific ACT reports can be viewed and downloaded for free on ACT’s website.