Policies & Practices to Increase College Readiness

How to Increase College Readiness

Only 23% of all 2009 graduates met all four ACT College Readiness Benchmarks, meaning that 77% were not adequately prepared academically for first-year college courses in English Composition, College Algebra, social sciences, and Biology. States and schools can implement six policies and practices that can systemically increase the percentage of their students who are ready for college-level work.

Essential Standards. States should adopt fewer but essential learning standards as their new high school graduation standards, and those they adopt must lead to college and career readiness. To ensure that all students are ready for college or career, it is imperative that policymakers be guided by a real-world definition of “readiness”—that is, a definition that reflects those standards that have been validated as the most essential for success in college classrooms or on the job. States should make sure that their state standards include the essential skills from ACT’s College Readiness Standards that are required for students to meet the College Readiness Benchmarks for the ACT.

Common Expectations. States should adopt 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. To ensure students master the knowledge and skills to succeed after high school, ACT recommends that students take a core curriculum consisting of at least four years of English and three years each of mathematics (Algebra I and II and Geometry), science (Biology, Chemistry, and Physics), and social studies.

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. Based on decades of student performance data, ACT defines “college readiness” as students having approximately a 75% chance of earning a grade of C or higher or a 50% chance of earning a grade of B or higher in first-year college English Composition; College Algebra; History, Psychology, Sociology, Political Science, or Economics; and Biology.

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.

Early Monitoring and Intervention. States should begin monitoring student academic performance early to make sure younger students are on target to be ready for college and career. Interventions are needed for students who are off target. We know from our empirical data that students who take challenging curricula are much better prepared to graduate high school ready for college. If students are to have a chance at college readiness, their progress must be monitored closely so that deficiencies in foundational skills can be identified and remediated early, in the upper elementary grades and middle school. In addition, age-appropriate career assessment, exploration, and planning activities encourage students to consider and focus on personally relevant career options so that they can plan their high school coursework accordingly.

Data-Driven Decisions. States need to establish longitudinal P–16 data systems. If states are serious about ensuring that more of their students are prepared for college and work in the 21st century, they must 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. Longitudinal data systems provide a tool to schools to ensure all their students take and complete the right number and kinds of courses before graduation. Using a longitudinal assessment system also permits schools to evaluate the value added by each core course in helping students to become ready for college and career. In addition, such systems allow colleges to offer feedback reports to high schools that examine how well prepared each high school’s graduates are for college. These reports can be used to strengthen high school curricula.

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