Ready or Not

Students' preparation for college and work require the same learning ingredients, ACT report finds, but states are failing the grade.
May 8, 2006

Whether they are headed to college or directly to the work force, high school graduates need to be educated at comparable levels in mathematics and reading to succeed, ACT Inc. says in a report to be released today. As a result, the company recommends all high school students should "experience a common academic program ... regardless of their postgraduation plans."

Unfortunately, according to recent research by ACT and others, most states are doing a terrible job at fulfilling this mission, and only a few are taking significant steps in that direction.

To rectify this situation, ACT has unleashed an ambitious campaign to get the attention of policy makers, suggesting that a national college and work readiness standard be established.

“There’s this impression that all students can’t take the same courses,” says Cyndie Schmeiser, senior vice president research and development at ACT. “That certainly isn’t true. We can’t afford to educate kids to a lesser standard based on misassumptions.”

ACT’s report concludes that the expectations of students who choose to enter work force training programs “for jobs that are likely to offer both a wage sufficient to support and small family and potential career advancement should be no different from students who choose to enter college after high school graduation.” 

The testing company reached its conclusions based on a review of separate tests it gives to measure students' readiness for college and for the work force. It found that jobs that don't require a four-year degree, like electricians, construction workers and upholsterers, which offer a wage sufficient to support a family of four, require that students meet the same benchmarks as successful college students. Those benchmarks equate to a 21 out of 36 in reading on the ACT test, and, for math, a 22 out of 36 in order to both be ready to succeed in college or to stay successfully employed at a job like upholstering.

Schmeiser says that she hopes the ACT report will provide state policy makers with the incentive to make “all student initiatives,” which require that all students are ready for college.

According to an April policy brief prepared by Jennifer Dounay, a researcher with the Education Commission of the States, few states are currently embedding college readiness indicators in curriculum and assessments. And no state currently requires all students to complete a high school curriculum aligned with state-set college admission requirements, she says.

Schmeiser says its no wonder that remediation costs for students who do enter college have skyrocketed.

Some states do provide an optional aligned curriculum, says Dounay, and a few others -- Indiana, Oklahoma and South Dakota -- will make an aligned curriculum mandatory for all students in future graduating classes. The April ECS briefing, “ Alignment of High School Graduation Requirements with College Admissions Requirements,” provides 50-state information on the level of alignment in English, math, science, social studies and foreign language requirements for high school graduation and statewide college admission requirements.

California State University has helped that state lead the pack in some experts’ opinions because it has developed high school assessments to determine students’ readiness for college, while there’s still time to identify deficiencies and build essential skills before high school graduation.

And some states, including Illinois and Colorado -- with Michigan soon to follow -- have required all juniors to take the ACT, regardless of their plans for after high school. Research indicates that these actions have helped many students become college-ready who might not otherwise have been. 

“I don’t think that this is an issue that can be solved overnight,” says Schmeiser, noting both the financial and ideological challenges that she believes lie ahead. “It really requires a redefinition of what high schools are intended to do.”


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