College & Career Readiness Growing Among ACT-Tested U.S. High School Graduates

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IOWA CITY, Iowa—ACT-tested U.S. high school graduates appear to be making slow but steady progress at becoming ready for college and career, according to ACT’s annual Condition of College and Career Readiness report for 2010, released today.

The 2010 ACT® test results show a growing percentage of students meeting all four of the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks, an increase of 1 percentage point over last year and 3 percentage points over five years ago. This has occurred as the population of ACT-tested graduates has grown to new levels—up by 30 percent since 2006—and become more diverse.

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“The results are encouraging, particularly when we look at the trends over time,” said Cynthia B. Schmeiser, ACT’s Education Division president and chief operating officer. “As the number of ACT-tested students continues to rapidly grow larger and more representative of the U.S. population, we’re seeing a clearer picture of the condition of college and career readiness in this country. Even though there are still high numbers of students who are not ready, these findings suggest we’re starting to get more kids over the readiness threshold, which means increased postsecondary access and opportunity and greater likelihood of success in college and career.”

Twenty-four percent of ACT-tested 2010 high school graduates met or surpassed all four of the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks, up from 21 percent in 2006 and from 23 percent last year. The percent of graduates ready to succeed in college coursework remains highest in English (66 percent), followed by reading (52 percent), mathematics (43 percent) and science (29 percent).

Much Improvement Still Needed
The ACT report also indicates there is substantial room for improvement in college and career readiness. Among 2010 ACT-tested graduates, a combined total of 43 percent met either none (28 percent) or only one (15 percent) of the four ACT College Readiness Benchmarks. Those students are likely lacking many of the skills needed to be ready to succeed in credit-bearing first-year college courses and in workforce training programs this fall.

“President Obama has set an ambitious goal that the United States will lead the world in college completion by the end of the decade,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “While the college readiness of our students has been gradually increasing in recent years, it isn’t nearly high enough to meet this goal. We need to continue to advance reforms that prepare students for success in college and careers.”

“While we’re encouraged by the growth we’re seeing, we still have far too many students in our nation graduating from high school without the knowledge and skills they will need to succeed in college and career,” Schmeiser said. “Efforts are already under way on many fronts to address this problem, and this hard work must continue until the problem is resolved.”

ACT Benchmarks Link Scores to Readiness
The ACT College Readiness Benchmarks, which are based on the actual grades earned by students in college, give ACT the unique ability to define college and career readiness and report student performance results relative to that goal. The benchmarks specify the minimum scores needed on each ACT subject-area test to indicate that a student has a 50 percent chance of earning a grade of B or higher or about a 75 percent chance of earning a C or higher in a typical credit-bearing first-year college course in that subject area (English composition, college algebra, introductory social science and biology).

The ACT is a curriculum-based achievement test that measures the skills and knowledge taught in high school that are deemed essential for college and career readiness.

Impact of Common Core Standards
The ACT results come at a time when much national focus is being placed on adopting and implementing new college and career readiness standards in high school. Many states have already adopted or are in the process of adopting the Common Core State Standards. ACT has been a partner in the Common Core State Standards Initiative, sharing its decades of research and experience to help inform the development of the standards.

“This is a critical moment as our country cooperatively commits to college and career readiness for all through the Common Core State Standards,” said Schmeiser. “The information in ACT’s report provides a gauge of the current state of college and career readiness across the nation as well as a preview of the challenges in workforce capacity we have ahead of us.”

This fall, ACT will be issuing a report that examines the current status of college and career readiness in the U.S. based on the Common Core State Standards.

The report will be the first of its kind to link actual student achievement to the Common Core State Standards. The report is made possible due to the strong alignment between ACT’s College Readiness Standards and the Common Core State Standards and the fact that several states administer the ACT to all students as part of their statewide assessment programs. The analysis in this report will provide the nation’s first insight into the state of students’ college and career readiness as defined by the Common Core State Standards.

Greatly Expanding Pool of ACT-Tested Students
The gradual growth in overall college readiness has occurred as the number of ACT-tested graduates has grown steadily and substantially. Nearly 1.6 million students—almost half (47 percent) of all 2010 U.S. high school graduates—took the ACT, up from 1.2 million (40 percent of all graduates) in 2006. The 2010 total is up 6 percent from last year.

“Ten years ago, I seldom heard about the ACT during state education meetings, but now meetings seldom pass without some reference to the growing importance of the ACT,” said Rick Hilton, headmaster of the Lyndon Institute in Lyndon Center, Vt. “Our students believe in the value of the ACT. So do our faculty, who are now using the ACT rubrics as benchmarks for gauging student progress and also as templates for planning and evaluating our departmental curricula. We believe that the ACT tests administered to our students—EXPLORE®, PLAN® and the ACT—have been the single most important tool in raising college aspirations among our students.”

“As we continue to recruit students from across the country, we see more students who are submitting ACT scores,” said Eric R. White, executive director, Division of Undergraduate Studies and associate dean for advising at The Pennsylvania State University. “Penn State is pleased to offer prospective students the option of submitting ACT results for admission consideration. By doing so, we allow them to select the testing option that would best reflect what they have learned in school.”

Coupled with the growth in the number of test-takers has been increasing diversity in the demographic makeup of the testing pool. Ethnic/racial minority students this year made up 29 percent of all ACT-tested graduates, up from 23 percent in 2006. The most remarkable growth was in the number of Hispanic graduates tested, which has nearly doubled (up by 84 percent) since 2006, from fewer than 86,000 to nearly 158,000 students.

In addition, numerous states, recognizing that a comparable level of skills are needed for readiness in college and in workforce training programs, are now using the ACT to assess learning for all students. In the past five years, participation in the ACT in Michigan, Kentucky, Wyoming and Tennessee has risen to include virtually all graduates, rather than only college-bound students. These states joined Colorado and Illinois in offering the ACT to all public school 11th graders as part of statewide assessment programs. North Dakota began the same practice this past spring, and three other states—Arkansas, Texas and Utah—have been or will soon begin offering the ACT to all school districts at state expense.

High School Course Selection Vital
The ACT score results once again show a strong relationship between high school course taking and college and career readiness. Students who took the recommended minimum core curriculum in high school—four years of English and three years each of mathematics, science and social studies—were much more likely than those who took less than the core requirements to meet or surpass the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks in each subject area. Students who took additional courses beyond the core curriculum were even more likely to achieve the benchmark scores.

The largest curriculum-based difference in college and career readiness was in the area of mathematics. More than half (55 percent) of the students who took more than three years of math in high school met or surpassed the College Readiness Benchmark score in math, compared to 13 percent of those who took just three years of math and only 7 percent who took fewer than three years.

“We can’t stress enough how important high school course selection is in the college and career readiness process,” said Schmeiser. “It’s very clear that students who take the right courses are much more likely to be ready for success after high school than those who don’t.”

Average ACT Composite Score
While there have been more students meeting all four ACT College Readiness Benchmarks over the past five years, the average ACT composite score has remained essentially unchanged. The national average composite score this year was 21.0, down slightly from 21.1 in three of the past five years. The ACT is scored on a scale of 1 to 36, with 36 being the highest possible score.

In New Jersey, the average composite score was 23.2, with the average English score at 23.1, math at 23.6, reading at 23.2 and science at 22.4.


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