Only a quarter of high school students who take a full set of college-preparatory courses — four years of English and three each of mathematics, science and social studies — are well prepared for college, according to a study of last year’s high school graduates released yesterday by ACT, the Iowa testing organization.
The study analyzed about 1.2 million students who took the ACT, one of the country’s major college admissions tests, along with the SAT, and graduated from high school last June. The study predicted whether students had a good chance of scoring a C or better in introductory college courses based on their test scores and the success rates of past test takers. Only 26 percent were ready for college-level work in all four core areas. Another 19 percent were not adequately prepared in any of them.
“While taking the right number of courses is certainly better than not, it is no longer enough,” the report said.
Cynthia B. Schmeiser, president and chief operating officer of the ACT Education Division, said she was stunned by the low level of accomplishment for students who had taken the core curriculum, which was recommended 24 years ago in “A Nation at Risk,” a federal Department of Education commission report that prompted widespread efforts to improve American education.
“What’s shocking about this, is that since ‘A Nation at Risk,’ we have been encouraging students to take this core curriculum with the unspoken promise that when they do, they will be college ready,” she said. “What we have found now, is that when they do, only one in four is ready for college-level work.”
ACT said 54 percent of last year’s graduates who took the ACT exam said they had taken at least the core curriculum. Those who did not fared even less well; only 14 percent were judged ready for college work in all four areas, while 36 percent were not prepared in any.
Yesterday’s report, “Rigor at Risk: Reaffirming Quality in the High School Core Curriculum,” is a sign of growing attention to secondary education after decades of emphasis on elementary and middle schools.
In 1999, Clifford Adelman, then a researcher at the federal Education Department, found that the strength of high school work was the most important factor in determining college success, more than the socioeconomic status of a student’s family.
The new report, which cites Mr. Adelman’s research, makes the case that many high school courses are not providing the necessary quality that he described.“Course titles don’t matter nearly as much as what is taught and how it is taught,” said Michael Cohen, president of Achieve, a Washington-based organization that works with states on academic standards.