U.S. high school core courses too often lack the rigor they need to adequately prepare students for college-level work, according to a new report from ACT, Inc. Recent ACT findings suggest that even students who take the recommended college preparatory curriculum in high school are often ill-prepared to handle college material. The newly released report, titled Rigor at Risk, also suggests that many students lose academic momentum during their last two years of high school.
For many years, ACT has supported college-bound students in taking a core curriculum in high school based on recommendations made in the influential 1983 federal report A Nation at Risk.Now it's clear that just taking the right number of courses is no longer enough to ensure college readiness. Many students are currently taking additional higher-level courses in high school in order to have a reasonable chance of succeeding in college. Rather than students having to take more and more courses in high school, ACT recommends that schools improve the quality and rigor of their core course offerings.
The Rigor at Risk report suggests that some students progress toward college readiness in high school, but many lose momentum during their last two years there. ACT tracked results from students taking its EXPLORE test for 8th graders, its PLAN test for 10th graders, and the ACT college admission exam, each of which has its own grade-specific College Readiness Benchmarks. The benchmarks represent a high likelihood that students will earn a grade of "C" or higher in specific first-year college courses such as English composition, algebra, biology, and social science courses.
College Readiness Benchmark Attainment by Students in
Grades 8, 10, and 12
(High School Graduating Classes of 2003-2005)
The report also cites a number of factors that contribute to inadequate college preparation in high schools. For example, most states don't require specific core courses for graduation, nor do their state standards specify the course-level outcomes needed for college readiness. So teachers and students have little guidance about the courses students need to take and the knowledge and skills they need to acquire to be ready for college. The result of these and other misalignments in the high school system is that core courses are not providing students with the foundation they need for college success.
But high school courses can be made rigorous, and rigorous content can be effectively taught and learned. ACT identified nearly 400 high schools across the U.S. whose students have shown greater-than-average increases in scores on the ACT Mathematics or Science Test. The score increases suggest that students at these schools benefit more from taking core courses such as Algebra II and Chemistry than do students who take these courses at other schools nationwide.
There are action steps that states and schools can take to improve the rigor of high school core courses:
- Specify the number and kinds of courses that students need to take to graduate from high school ready for college and work.
- Align high school course outcomes with state standards that are driven by the requirements of postsecondary education and work.
- Hire qualified teachers and provide training or professional development support to help them improve the quality of the courses they teach.
- Expand access for all students to high-quality, vertically aligned core courses.
- Measure results at the course level.