Policies & Practices to Increase Readiness

How to Increase Readiness

Approximately 28% of all 2012 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. There are steps that states, districts, schools, and classrooms can take to increase student readiness for college-level work.

State Policy Recommendations

Implementing College and Career Readiness Standards.

Since ACT released its policy report Making the Dream a Reality in 2008, we have called for states to adopt education standards that prepare all students for 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 a first step in ensuring all students pursue real-world benchmarks for their college or career success. Implementing the standards must now be a catalyst for aligning all aspects of state and local systems to college and career readiness. Promising practice research shows that systemic alignment of key policies and school activities empowers educators to make notable gains in student achievement. An integrated, systemic approach to education delivery is essential for every state and would include the actions outlined here:

  • Infusing a Culture of Postsecondary Success. All states—especially those that have adopted the Common Core State Standards—should align 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 should be comparable in rigor, clarity of purpose, and completion. An educator’s vision, attitudes, and motivation have lasting impact on student achievement. Securing a high-quality education is vital to the success of all students in a rapidly changing world.
  • Expanding Rigorous High School Courses. Appropriate and aligned standards, coupled with a core curriculum, can prepare students only if the courses are truly challenging. It is more important for students to take the right kinds of courses rather than the right number of courses. ACT supports a high school core curriculum consisting of at least four years of English and three years each of mathematics, science, and social studies. Students who take a rigorous core curriculum are much more likely to graduate high school ready for credit-bearing first-year college courses without remediation.
  • Ensuring Early Monitoring and Intervention. Our data show that students who take challenging curricula are more likely to graduate high school ready for college or career training opportunities. Longitudinal data systems enable educators to identify students in need of academic intervention at an early stage, when problems are still solvable, giving teachers and students more time to strengthen these skills before graduation. In order for students to plan their high school coursework, age-appropriate career assessment, exploration, and planning activities that encourage them to consider personally relevant career options should be used regularly. Empowering teachers and administrators with currently available tools is essential for modern instructional practice to monitor student achievement against appropriate benchmarks in core academic subjects throughout elementary, middle, and secondary school.
  • Setting Clear Performance Standards. In addition to a consistent, rigorous set of essential K–12 content standards, states must define performance standards so that everyone knows “how good is good enough” for students 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 B or higher or about a 75% chance of earning a C or higher in first-year college English Composition, College Algebra, Biology, and an introductory social science course. Longitudinal, real-world data and research on what constitutes student success are now available to virtually every state and district, as are standards and benchmarks against which the performance of students and schools can be measured and state progress marked.
  • Implementing Policies and Practices for Data-Driven Decision Making. States have been hard at work developing longitudinal P–16 data systems—this work must continue. To ensure their students are prepared for the 21st century, states must have systems that allow schools and districts to closely monitor student performance at every stage of the learning pipeline, from preschool through college. Teacher and administrator preparation and professional development must include developing skills to use data appropriately to improve the practices of teaching and learning. Absent good data, opinion can overly influence key decisions.

District, School, & Classroom Practices

The Path to Readiness: It Takes a System
Research by the National Center for Educational Achievement (NCEA)—a department of ACT—shows that no single program or isolated reform can be a substitute for a coherent, long-term, systemwide approach to improving teaching and learning. We all want our students to graduate prepared to take on future opportunities with success. So, what are consistently higher performing schools doing to place more students on the path to college and career readiness?

The Core Practice Framework, built upon the study of more than 550 schools across 20 states, identifies the core practices that distinguish a higher performing school from its average performing counterparts. NCEA studies the practices of those schools and school systems that have more success in preparing their students for college and careers than their peers who serve similar student populations. Our ongoing research supports the Framework and adds content and information to each of the core practices below.

The 15 Practices of Higher Performing School Systems
The Core Practice Framework outlines the evidence-based educator practices at each level of a school system—district, school, and classroom—that will help all students master high standards. The Framework focuses on five themes:

  • Theme 1: Curriculum and Academic Goals
    • District Practice: Provide clear, prioritized learning objectives by grade and subject that all students are expected to master.
    • School Practice: Set expectations and goals for teaching and learning based on the district’s written curriculum.
    • Classroom Practice: Study and use the district’s written curriculum to plan all instruction.
  • Theme 2: Staff Selection, Leadership, and Capacity Building
    • District Practice: Provide strong principals, a talented teacher pool, and layered professional development.
    • School Practice: Select and develop teachers to ensure high-quality instruction.
    • Classroom Practice: Collaborate as a primary means for improving instruction.
  • Theme 3: Instructional Tools: Programs and Strategies
    • District Practice: Provide evidence- and standards-based instructional tools that support academic rigor for all students.
    • School Practice: Promote strategies and build structures and schedules to support academic rigor.
    • Classroom Practice: Use proven instructional tools to support rigorous learning for students.
  • Theme 4: Monitoring Performance and Progress
    • District Practice: Develop and use student assessment and data management systems to monitor student learning.
    • School Practice: Monitor teacher performance and student learning.
    • Classroom Practice: Analyze and discuss student performance data.
  • Theme 5: Intervention and Adjustment
    • District Practice: Respond to data through targeted interventions or curricular/instructional adjustments.
    • School Practice: Use targeted interventions to address learning needs of teachers and students.
    • Classroom Practice: Use targeted interventions or adjustments to address learning needs of students.

Another layer behind the Framework, the Critical Actions, provides additional support for educators by outlining how to successfully implement the key components of each core practice.

The Core Practice Framework

Diagram of the Core Practice Framework, described below.

Reading from bottom to top, the path to readiness begins with ACT’s College and Career Readiness Standards, Common Core State Standards, and district learning objectives. Applying the 15 core practices of teaching and learning leads to high-quality instruction, which in turn creates the opportunity for all students to reach ACT’s College Readiness Benchmarks and to be ready for college.

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