Policies & Practices to Increase Readiness

How to Increase Readiness

Approximately 28% of all 2011 ACT-tested high school graduates did not meet any of the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks, meaning they were not prepared academically for first-year college courses in English Composition, College Algebra, Biology, and social sciences. 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. Since ACT first released Making the Dream a Reality in 2008, we have called for states to adopt education standards that prepare all students for the rigors of college or career training programs. With the adoption of the Common Core State Standards by 45 states and the District of Columbia, most states have taken that first step on the road to ensuring all students are ready for college or career. It is imperative now that policymakers and practitioners continue this process by aligning all aspects of their systems to college and career readiness.

Common Expectations. All states—especially those that have adopted the Common Core State Standards—should be aligning college and career readiness standards to 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 supports the core curriculum recommendations of A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, specifically, that students take a core curriculum consisting of at least four years of English and three years each of mathematics, science, 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 a 50% chance of earning a grade of B or higher or about a 75% chance of earning a grade of C or higher in first-year college English Composition; College Algebra; Biology; or History, Psychology, Sociology, Political Science, or Economics.

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. We know from our empirical data that students who take challenging curricula are much better prepared to graduate high school ready for college or career training opportunities. If students are to be ready for college or career when they graduate, their progress must be monitored closely so that deficiencies in foundational skills can be identified and remediated early, in upper elementary and middle school. In addition, age-appropriate career assessment, exploration, and planning activities that encourage students to consider and focus on personally relevant career options should be a part of this process so that students can plan their high school coursework accordingly.

Data-Driven Decisions. States have been hard at work in developing longitudinal P–16 data systems—this work must continue and accelerate. If states are serious about ensuring more of their students are prepared for college and work in the 21st century, they must develop systems that allow schools and districts to 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. Such systems also 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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