Posted by: Gregory Linton | 11/05/2019

Recent reports show that high school graduates are less prepared for college

Reports released in the last several weeks have hit higher education with a double whammy of bad news: Future students will not only be fewer in number but also less prepared for college-level work. Three reports show that the readiness of high school graduates to succeed in college continues to decline.

Every two years, the National Center for Education Statistics administers mathematics and reading assessments to representative samples of fourth- and eighth-grades across the nation. The 2019 scores showed the following changes from the 2017 results (scores are on a 0-500 scale):

  • 4th-grade math: increased by 1 point (241 to 242)
  • 8th-grade math: decreased by 1 point (283 to 282)
  • 4th-grade reading: decreased by 1 point (226 to 225)
  • 8th-grade reading: decreased by 3 points (269 to 266)

The report offers a state-by-state breakdown. This analysis shows that average reading scores were significantly lower in 17 states at grade 4 and in 31 states at grade 8. Only one state/jurisdiction had a significant score increase in reading at each grade level (Mississippi with a 4-point increase at grade 4 and District of Columbia with a 3-point increase at grade 8).

Nationwide, about a third of students scored at or above the NAEP Proficient level for reading in grades 4 and 8. For mathematics, 41% of 4th-graders and 34% of 8th-graders scored at or above the Proficient level.

Analyses of the report were published by The Hechinger Report and The 74.

Every year, ACT, Inc. releases a report summarizing the results of the year’s administration of the ACT. This year’s report is based on the results of 1.8 million graduating seniors. ACT reports that “the percentages of graduates meeting the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks in math and English are the lowest they’ve been in 15 years.” The average ACT Composite score was 20.7, down from 20.8 in 2018.

ACT sets College Readiness Benchmarks for each of the four areas of the test. Students who achieve these benchmarks have a 50% chance or higher of obtaining a B or higher or about a 75% chance of obtaining a C or higher in corresponding credit-bearing first-year courses. The benchmark scores are 18 for English (=English Composition), 22 for Reading (=Social Sciences), 22 for Math (=College Algebra), and 23 for Science (=Biology).

Only 26% of 2019 graduates met all four benchmarks. 37% met at least three of the four benchmarks, and 36% met none of the benchmarks. Readiness levels in all four subject areas have decreased since 2015 with the largest declines in English (64% to 59%) and math (42% to 39%).

The report also examines results for “underserved learners” who are defined as being members of a minority group from low-income families whose parents did not attend college. Just 9% of these graduates met three or more of the benchmarks.

ACT’s research has found that a key factor in meeting the College Readiness Benchmarks is taking a rigorous core academic curriculum that includes four years of English and three years each of math, science, and social studies. The average Composite score for those who have taken this curriculum was 22.2 versus 18.9 for those who haven’t.

A couple of weeks ago, I summarized the results of the 2019 administration of the SAT. Here are some of the results that reinforce the information above:

  • The mean score was 1059, down from 1068 for the class of 2018.
  • 45% of test takers met both college readiness benchmarks (480 for Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and 530 for Math).
  • 30% of test takers met no college readiness benchmarks.
  • 68% of test takers met the readiness benchmark for Reading and Writing, but only 48% met the benchmark for Math.

Response to the Results

These results are mystifying in light of the many initiatives undertaken in the past couple of decades to improve our educational system: No Child Left Behind, Common Core, holding schools and teachers accountable for student performance, increased use of technology, expansion of magnet schools and charter schools, reforms of teacher preparation programs, and increased investment in education. Nothing has seemed to make a difference. There are no easy answers or quick fixes, or someone would have discovered them by now.

How should college instructors respond to these facts? We can no longer assume that most of our entering students are ready for rigorous, college-level work. Only the most selective schools can operate on that assumption. Schools whose mission is to educate average and underprepared students must view the first year as a year of transition to prepare high school graduates for college-level work. Instructors will need to meet students where they actually are, not where we wish or imagine they should be, and guide them into higher-level thinking, comprehension, and competence.


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