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Preparation by Eighth Grade Critical to College/Career Readiness

Most U.S. Eighth-Graders Aren't On Track, Will Face Uphill Battle to Catch Up

December 10 2008

Iowa City, IA—Students who aren’t on track for college and career readiness by eighth grade are unlikely to attain that level of readiness by high school graduation, according to “The Forgotten Middle,” a new research report by ACT, Inc.

The findings suggest the level of academic achievement that students attain by eighth grade has a bigger impact on whether they are ready for college and career by the time they graduate than any single factor examined, including courses taken, grades earned in high school and demographic characteristics such as gender, race, and household income.

“Eighth grade is a critical defining point for students in the college and career planning process,” said Cynthia B. Schmeiser, president and chief operating officer of ACT’s Education Division. “If students are not on target for college and career readiness by the time they reach this point, the impact may be nearly irreversible.”

The findings suggest that few U.S. eighth-graders are currently on target to be ready for college-level work by the time they graduate from high school. Only 16 percent of the recent high school graduates studied in ACT’s research had met or surpassed the organization’s College Readiness Benchmarks in all four subject areas—English, math, reading, and science—on EXPLORE, the organization’s eighth grade assessment of academic skills. Students who meet those benchmarks are on target to be college-ready by the time they graduate from high school. College readiness is defined by ACT as having a high likelihood of earning a “C” or higher in first year college courses in each subject area.

Conversely, the report suggests, being on target for college and career readiness by eighth grade puts students on a trajectory for success in high school and beyond. Among three groups of eighth grade students studied—those who were on target, those who just missed being on target, and those who were more substantially off target—only those who were on target in eighth grade were ultimately ready for college and career by their junior or senior year of high school.

“The implications of this research are clear,” said Schmeiser. “If we want to improve college readiness among U.S. high school graduates, we need to intervene before students reach high school, in upper elementary and middle school. The findings impact not only how we prepare students leading up to high school but in what strategic ways we intervene with those who are behind academically in high school. Both elements are critical for ensuring that our high school grads are ready for college and career. Our students deserve it, and our nation demands it.”

The need to build the foundation for college and career readiness well before high school is a topic that has at times been overshadowed on a crowded education reform agenda. Perhaps the most notable recent focus on reform has been in U.S. President-elect Barack Obama’s education plan, which places significant emphasis on improving high school achievement and graduation rates by reforming education in the upper elementary and middle school grades. The plan would require states to develop early-warning systems that identify at-risk students in grades 5 through 8 and provide interventions that help those students succeed.

ACT’s report suggests that the impact of this problem extends beyond college preparation to the U.S. workforce and the economy.

“The skills necessary for entry into the majority of the fastest growing jobs that require a high school diploma and offer a livable wage are comparable to those needed for success in first-year college courses,” said Schmeiser. “In the context of our current economic challenges, we should be targeting eighth grade readiness as a key benchmark for our nation’s ability to produce a workforce that is ready to succeed and compete in the global economy. The findings suggest we have a long way to go to ensure that outcome.”

ACT’s longitudinal research followed approximately 216,000 students in the U.S. graduating classes of 2005 and 2006 from eighth grade through high school graduation. All of these students had taken each of the three curriculum-based assessments in ACT’s College Readiness System—EXPLORE for eighth-graders, PLAN for 10th-graders, and the ACT college admission and placement exam.

The findings indicate that eighth grade academic achievement is a better predictor of eventual college and career readiness than any other single factor studied, including background characteristics, courses taken in high school, grades earned in high school, or student testing behaviors.

Schmeiser pointed out that high school-level interventions such as taking more rigorous courses, studying harder, and earning higher grades in high school can help to improve students’ level of readiness by the time they graduate. But, she cautioned, “Students who aren’t on track for readiness by eighth grade will have a very difficult time making up all of the ground they have lost. Without sufficient preparation prior to high school, students can’t maximize the benefits of academic enhancements while they are there.”

The study also found that improving certain behaviors of middle school students can help increase their readiness for college and career by the time they graduate. Two academic behaviors were found to have the greatest impact on both eighth grade course failure and ninth grade GPA: academic discipline (e.g., good work and study habits) and orderly conduct (behaving appropriately in class).

ACT’s report lays out the specific knowledge and skills in English, math, reading, and science that students must attain by the end of eighth grade to be on target for college and career success.

The report also offers several recommendations to educators and policymakers on how to improve college and career readiness among high school graduates, including the following:

  • Focus K-8 (kindergarten through eighth grade) standards on the knowledge and skills that are essential for college and career readiness, and make these nonnegotiable for all students.
  • Monitor student progress toward college and career readiness beginning in upper elementary school and continuing through middle school, and intervene with students who are not on target to becoming ready.
  • Improve students’ academic behaviors (homework compliance, attendance, and other aspects of academic discipline).
  • Increase federal and state support for schools to implement intervention programs that help all students become ready for college and career.