ACT Policy Alert
Beating the Odds and Getting On Course for Success

What is it that high-performance, high-minority, high-poverty schools are doing in their courses to produce the large numbers of students who are college ready? How are they beating the odds? What lessons can all schools learn from them?

These are the basic questions addressed in a joint report just issued by ACT and The Education Trust. The report, On Course for Success, is based on research conducted by our two organizations. We studied ten high schools, from nine different states, that are beating the odds and producing graduates that meet or exceed ACT's College Readiness Benchmark test scores. Nine of those ten schools did so despite having highly diverse and low-income populations. These schools are teaching the right kind of courses.Through intensive onsite studies, we discovered what these courses really look like and the components that put students On Course for Success.

This report gives us the impetus to move forward. It provides real answers about what rigorous college-prep course content looks like--and how it is best taught.

The common components for success in key classes at these high schools were:

  • High-level college-oriented content.
  • Well-qualified teachers.
  • Flexible teaching styles.
  • Tutorial support.

The study also yielded insight into the high-level knowledge and skills needed for success in college and frequently missing in state standards.For example:

In a college-prep geometry course—students should learn how to solve problems, make conjectures, prove theorems, and think mathematically.
In college-prep science—the manner in which the students work with the content is as important as the content itself. In Biology, for example, reconciling new concepts with current understanding, like seeing a piece of wood that sinks instead of floats, arouses curiosity and promotes critical thinking.
In tenth-grade English—students should be moving beyond just correctness in their writing, taking increasing responsibility for the variety, grace, and liveliness of their sentences.
In eleventh-grade English—students should move toward writing an elegant, well argued, well supported, precise, and confident analytical research paper, with documentation in a correct, prescribed style.

Course rigor is shown to be the key to college success.In this report, we include model course syllabi and comprehensive course descriptions for: English 10, English 11, Geometry, Algebra II, Precalculus, Biology, Chemistry, and Physics.

It's clear that improving college and workforce readiness is crucial to the development of a diverse and talented labor force that is able to maintain and increase U.S. economic competitiveness throughout the world. College graduates earn nearly twice as much as those with high school only; they are more likely to be and remain employed; and they are better able to adapt to the ever-changing workplace (U.S. Department of Labor, 2003).

Education and Training Pay

The message for policymakers is clear. We need to:

  1. Reexamine state standards and the content of college preparatory courses in high school to ensure they focus on high level college and work readiness skills.
  2. Increase the rigor of college preparatory courses in high school that will benefit all students.
  3. Require all students to take the courses in high school that have the most dramatic impact on college and work readiness.
  4. Begin measuring college readiness early (in middle school) and monitor student progress throughout high school.
  5. Identify students who are falling behind in preparing for college and provide them with the academic assistance they need—both within and outside the school day.

All students can benefit from high-quality, rigorous curriculum, but far too many--particularly children of color and those from low-income families--are fed watered-down coursework. We need to make high-quality college-prep courses the core of every high school's curriculum, so that all students--not just a select few--are prepared for the future.

This report is written for those with a vested interest in education—particularly policymakers at all levels concerned with secondary and postsecondary education and, more specifically, with what it will take to ensure that all students leave high school ready for college and work.

This is a big agenda, but it's one that's gaining currency across the nation. Increasingly, we know what needs to be done. This study sheds light on how to get there by detailing the content and instruction that will keep students On Course for Success.

Learn more. . .
On Course for Success: A Close Look at Selected High School Courses That Prepare All Students for College
(links will open in your web browser)
  Full Report
  Implications for Policymakers
  Policy Alert message (this email message)

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