October 2004


ACT, one of the country’s two major providers of standardized college entrance exams, is calling on Americans to take a closer look at how good a job high schools are doing of preparing students for college. A recent study by the testing organization found that fewer than a quarter of the 1.2 million students who took the ACT test this year appeared ready to begin college-level work in all three of the core academic areas of English, math, and science. Only 40 per cent of the students had test scores indicating they would earn a passing grade in a freshman-level algebra course, and only 26 per cent seemed capable of earning at least a “C” grade in an introductory biology course.

ACT announced these findings in report, Crisis at the Core: Preparing All Students for College and Work, released on October 14. The report notes that the proportion of high school seniors prepared to succeed in college-level courses is barely changed from what it was ten years ago, despite a decade of attempts to improve the readiness of high school graduates for college and work.

Part of the problem may lie in a lack of rigorous standards in high school classrooms. Even students who had taken the recommended number of college prep courses (four years of English, three years of social studies, three years of science, and three years of math) did not necessarily score well on the ACT. Conversely, there were students who had not taken advanced placement or honors level courses in these areas and who still did well on the test. The important thing, the ACT study found, was that students had access to core courses that required mastery of essential knowledge and skills.

The ACT study also found continuing differences in college preparation among racial and ethnic groups. On average, black, Hispanic, and Native American students had taken fewer college prep courses than non-Hispanic white and Asian students had. Overall, fewer boys had taken the recommended minimum number of college prep courses than girls had.

The ACT study concludes its report by calling on parents, policy makers, and business and community leaders to join educators in finding ways to solve this problem, warning that the United States cannot remain competitive in the world economy if it does not do a better job of preparing young people for success in college and work.