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ACT Policy Alert

New ACT Study Reveals the Importance of Being on Target for College and Career Readiness before High School

In recent years, there has been heightened awareness of the importance of early childhood education and high school as intervention points in the educational lives of America's children. Less attention, it seems, has been paid to the importance of the upper elementary grades and middle school and the role they must play in the preparation of students for life after high school. The new ACT report The Forgotten Middle suggests that, in the current educational environment, there is a critical defining point for students in the college and career readiness process—one so important that, if students are not on target for college and career readiness by the time they reach this point, the impact may be nearly irreversible.

Moreover, this research shows that, under current conditions, the level of academic achievement that students attain by eighth grade has a larger impact on their college and career readiness by the time they graduate from high school than anything that happens academically in high school. The report also reveals that, on average, eighth-grade students who are not on target for college and career readiness are much less likely to be ready for college and career by high school graduation than eighth-grade students who are on target.

We constructed predictive models to examine the relative strengths of six factors in influencing students' college readiness, as defined by their performance on the ACT® test. The predictive models showed that eighth-grade achievement (as measured by the four EXPLORE® scores in English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science) displays a stronger relationship with college and career readiness than does any other factor we examined.

This means that eighth-grade achievement is the best predictor of students' ultimate level of college and career readiness by high school graduation—even more than students' family background, high school coursework, or high school grade point average. Compared to eighth-grade academic achievement, the predictive power of each of the other factors was small, and in some cases negligible.

We also examined the impact of a variety of steps students could take to improve their college readiness during high school: for example, earning higher grades, taking a core curriculum in individual subject areas, and taking advanced or honors courses. ACT found that being on target for college and career readiness in the eighth grade and improving the college and career readiness skills that students possess by grade 8 have the most dramatic impact on high school graduates' ultimate level of college and career readiness. This impact is much larger than that associated with any single high school–level enhancement we studied. These results, however, should not be interpreted to mean that high school–level enhancements have little or no benefit for students. Rather, of the factors studied, modest increases in students' level of academic achievement by the eighth grade and being on target for college and career readiness in the eighth grade had the greatest relative impact on college and career readiness in grade 11 or 12.

In addition, we examined the rate of growth in students' achievement through high school. We examined growth among three categories of students in our sample: those who were on target for college and career readiness in the eighth grade, those who just missed being on target for college and career readiness (i.e., by two or fewer score points), and those who were more substantially off target (i.e., by more than two score points).

On average, only the group of students who were on target for college and career readiness by the eighth grade were ultimately ready for college and career by the eleventh or twelfth grade. Even the group of students who just missed being on target in eighth grade fell short, on average, of becoming ready for college and career by the time they reached grade 11 or 12. This was true in each of the four subject areas (the results for Mathematics appear in the figure below).

Average Scores for 2005 Sample (All Students)
Mathematics

Figure 5b: Average Scores for 2005 Sample (All Students) Mathematics

The Forgotten Middle offers four recommendations to improve academic achievement and college and career readiness among our nation's high school graduates:

  1. Focus K–8 standards on the knowledge and skills that are essential for college and career readiness, and make these nonnegotiable for all students.
  2. Monitor student progress in becoming ready for college and career, and intervene with students who are not on track to becoming ready, beginning in upper elementary school and continuing through middle school.
  3. Improve students' academically related behaviors.
  4. Increase federal and state support for schools to implement intervention programs that help all students become ready for college and career.

Learn more . . .

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