ACT Study Shows Little Progress in Preparing High School Graduates for College and Careers

Sep 13, 2010 by

Barry E. Stern Ph.D. Senior Fellow, Haberman International Policy Institute in Education

Barry E. Stern, Ph.D. – Over the last 20-30 years the most compelling graph of the condition of American education is one which compares the rate of change in public school expenditures or revenues per student with the rate of change in student achievement as measured by some long-standing accepted measure such as the ACT or SAT college entry tests, or the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) assessment of the achievement of 17 year-olds in reading and mathematics.

Over the last 20-30 years the most compelling graph of the condition of American education is one which compares the rate of change in public school expenditures or revenues per student with the rate of change in student achievement as measured by some long-standing accepted measure such as the ACT or SAT college entry tests, or the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) assessment of the achievement of 17 year-olds in reading and mathematics. For example, between 1990 and 2008 the revenue per public school student in the U.S. increased in constant dollars from $8,256 to $11,885 for a 44 percent increase, while a study released on August 18, 2010 showed the ACT college readiness test showed reading-math composite scores have remained steady from 2006-2010 as they have for previous decades (See Chart 1). More specifically, last spring’s high-school seniors averaged a composite score of 21.0 on the test’s scale of 1 to 36, down slightly from 21.1 last year and the lowest score of the last five years.

Adjusting for Expanding Pool of ACT-Tested Students 

The exam’s authors point to a growing and more diverse group of test-takers as a reason for lack of improvement in the score. 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. Since 1990 the number taking the ACT has almost doubled (92% increase) while the K-12 population has increased only 22 percent. From 2006-2010 the number of ACT test-takers increased 30 percent, while the total K-12 population barely increased.

If the demographics of the schools remained stable, simple increases in student body and ACT test-taking populations would not be sufficient to warrant a statistical adjustment of the scores.  However, a higher percentage of students and ACT test-takers qualify for free lunch (lower income), and there are more ethnic minorities (29 percent of all ACT-tested graduates, up from 23 percent in 2006) and those who are English language learners. 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.

Because these new test-takers compared to all test-takers disproportionately come from demographic groups that tend to have lower test scores, average ACT scores across time ought to adjust for these demographic differences. When Michigan, for example, performed this kind of statistical (regression model) adjustment for the 1991-2000 period,  it projected that if the ACT test-taking population had remained stable over time, the average ACT score in the State would have increased by 0.27 points more than the actual 0.42 gain for a total increase of almost 0.7 on the ACT scale. That is, the actual ACT composite score went from 20.26 in 1990 to 20.68 in 1999-2000. With the adjustment for demographic changes, the 2000 score would have increased a quarter point to 20.95. This was only a 1.3 percent increase in 10 years, but it would have been enough to move Michigan from ranking 30 among the states to 17 in average ACT composite score. In 2000, 70 percent of Michigan seniors took the ACT compared to 63 percent in 1990. (Today, in 2010, it is among a handful of states that uses the ACT to assess learning for all students, rather than only college-bound students.) When a state makes such jumps in percentage of students taking the ACT, it probably ought to follow through and adjust the scores to account for the associated demographic changes in the test-taking population. Once the demographic composition of new test-takers reflects the population of test-takers as a whole, there would no longer be a reason to adjust the scores

NAEP Scores Also Flat

Like ACT scores, NAEP reading and math scores for 17 year-olds have remained remarkably constant since 1990. Since NAEP test-takers are randomly selected from the school, no adjustment of scores is necessary to account for new test-takers who tend to come from groups that score low.  Yet the story remains the same: despite increasing K-12 revenues per student, student performance in math has remained flat while in reading it has declined slightly (see Chart 2).

More Meeting ACT Benchmarks, but Not by Much

On a more positive note, the ACT Report indicates a slightly higher percentage of seniors are meeting benchmarks used to measure college readiness: 24 percent met or surpassed all four of the ACT test’s benchmarks measuring their preparedness for college English, reading, math and science. That is up from 23 percent last year and 21 percent in 2006. Yet still, three in four test-takers will likely need remedial help in at least one subject to succeed in college. 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

U.S. parents and taxpayers shouldn’t be overly encouraged by these modest improvements. While statistically significant (because of the large sample size), they are educationally insignificant with over four in 10 test-takers not even remotely prepared to succeed this fall in credit-bearing first-year college courses and in workforce training programs. Among 2010 ACT-tested graduates, for example, a combined total of 43 percent met either none (28 percent) or only one (15 percent) of the four ACT College Readiness Benchmarks. ACT further explains the benchmarks specify the minimum scores a student needs on each ACT subject-area test to have 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.

Performance Poor Across States

Of the 28 states where at least 40% of all 2010 high school graduates took the ACT, in only one (Minnesota) did more than 50% of their ACT-tested graduates meet at least three College Readiness Benchmarks. In no state did more than 54% of ACT-tested graduates meet three or four Benchmarks.

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. 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.

Better Standards Leading to Nowhere

A nation of slow learners, we have yet to deduce that the emphasis on better standards and tests over the last 20-30 years has not moved the needle of student performance despite continual funding increases. While the workplace and college classroom have become more demanding, U.S. high school graduates appear to be running in place. The rest of the world is becoming smarter faster.

Our high school students seem to know this. A large proportion still describes high school as “boring.” Consistent with previous surveys, the 2009 High School Survey of Student Engagement with a sample of 42,000 indicated 49% were bored by at least one class each day; 17% by every class. Some 7,000 young people drop out of school every day. Our nation’s high school dropout rate is 30% for all students, 50% for minorities; Roughly four in 10 college entrants need remedial English or math before they can take credit-bearing classes. In several large cities the situation is much worse, where high school is perceived not only as boring but dangerous.

Are we investing in the right things?

So what has our 44% increase in real spending per student bought us in 20 years (106 % increase in 30 years)? Well, our teachers are better paid. They have better pension and medical insurance benefits, or at least more expensive plans. They have computers, various kinds of projectors and interactive electronic white boards in many if not most classrooms. And until the current recession teachers have had generally smaller classes and more administrators and specialists to provide curriculum support, supervision, data management and procurement services, and social and health services in the schools.

In addition to better pay, benefits, classroom tools, and administrative support, we have invested heavily in efforts to improve teaching through improved professional development, mentoring and certification practices. Moreover, the U.S. continues to invest in better standards and accountability systems, pay systems that reward excellence, smaller schools, pathways to college and careers, charter schools and choice, etc. Yet at the end of the day, American high schools are not making it with their business and university customers, or their students.

Is Expanded Choice – More Charters And Vouchers – the Answer?

Choice presumably leads to competition, and competition leads to improved quality and customer satisfaction. The U.S. has endeavored to create more choice and competition through expanding the number of charter schools and allowing a few limited tests of school vouchers. For both types of choice public funds follow students to the schools they attend, which why they remain controversial, particularly in the case of vouchers which allow parents to opt for private schools.

The jury is still out on whether and the extent to which choice improves student competencies and graduation rates. Summarizing several studies on charter schools, the Brown Center of the Brookings Institution (2009) concludes:

Studies that have employed large samples of charter schools and controlled statistically for background differences between students, generally find very small differences in student achievement between the two types of public schools…


More positive findings for charters emerge from studies of oversubscribed charter schools in which lotteries were used to determine admission. For example, a recent study of performance of students in charter schools in New York City found positive effects … Similar studies with similar results have been reported for oversubscribed charters in Chicago and Boston.

In the New York City study (2009) referenced by the Brown Center, one conclusion was:

A student who attends a charter high school is about 7 percent more likely to earn a Regents diploma by age 20 for each year he spends in that school. For instance, a student who spent grades ten through twelve in charter high school would have about a 21 percent higher probability of getting a Regents diploma.

Despite such hopeful signs, enrollments in charter high schools though growing remain tiny. In 2009-10 only 1.7 million students nationwide attended charter schools, with only a third or roughly 560,000 attending high schools. Thus, less than 4% of the Nation’s 15 million high school students attend charters, hardly enough to affect  measures like national ACT and NAEP reading and math scores, even if they were to clearly outperform traditional high schools, which is not the case, at least, not yet.

The dilemma for the vast majority of parents, therefore, is that there is simply nowhere for them to go if they wish to opt out of the traditional public school. Even if charter high schools were accessible, most are not all that different from traditional public schools in that they use the same curriculum and course scheduling practices. So for choice to become a real option there must be more choices, that is, more charter schools that organize learning experiences differently than the traditional ones. At the rate we are going, this will take years.

It’s the Curriculum, Stupid!!

Once a school, local district or state education agency has standards–what it wants students to know and be able to do at particular grade levels—the next step is to develop curricula, i.e. the content, teaching methods, materials and sequence of experiences that will help students attain the standards. Teachers with subject matter experts develop curricula. Of course, the same curriculum can often be delivered with different instructional strategies.

Over the years curriculum developers have sought to improve textbooks, teacher skills, software and other technological aids within the context of the century-old “factory model” high school where students change what they do and with whom every 45 minutes in response to a bell in the usual academic silos. In other words, we continue seeking to perfect the obsolete industrial era high school that historically has not worked for half the students, particularly those from low-income backgrounds, and that has generally bored the last two generations of students. Our “shovel-ready” curricula (where information is ‘shoveled’ from the notes of teachers into the short-term memory of students) remain insufficiently aligned with the way the world has changed and how today’s adolescents differ demographically, culturally and emotionally from those from previous generations.

The evidence ought to be persuasive by now that even with curriculum tweaks the factory model high school is unlikely to do much better than it has in equipping students with the skills they will need in college, work, or life. Unfortunately, most charter schools and re-constituted high schools have reverted to this factory model. Unsurprisingly, their results have not been much better than those of traditional schools. Regardless of how much money we pour into the factory model school that the vast majority of U.S. students attend, ACT and NAEP scores in basic academics will continue to flat line, except in places that have had for several years exceptional leadership and teamwork. Trying to perfect this system as we have over the last 30 years is unlikely to pay off. We must continually ask, whether the kids have benefitted from the 44% gain in real spending per student since 1990 when the President and the governors began in earnest to set improved national goals and standards for education (106% spending increase since 1980). Or have we simply developed more jobs and better compensation for the adults who teach and supervise them?

Turned Off Younger Teachers

The factory model high school is also turning off our younger teachers who must replace the huge cohort of “Baby Boom” teachers who have already begun to retire. Too many become discouraged by the isolation from colleagues they feel in these schools. These younger teachers also perceive that bonding and sustainable healthy relationships among and between students and teachers occurs all too infrequently in such schools. From the Facebook and Twitter generation, they correctly intuit that you can’t achieve academic rigor in schools without these relationships and for that matter relevance of the curriculum to the career and life challenges that await students. Additionally, compared to how work is organized in non-school settings, they see that the factory model school is a huge time waster with time lost transitioning between classrooms, achieving order, taking attendance, reviewing previous day’s lesson, and continual interruptions and school announcements. No wonder 1/3 of new teachers quit in 3 years; 1/2 within 5 years.

No Academic Rigor without Relationships and Relevance

What should replace the industrial era factory model high school? That is, which curricula and school structures would best help American teenagers re-engage in school and meet the higher and better standards we’ve been developing for the last 20 years? Answering such questions should claim most of our investment dollars for K-12 education. Yet we continue to divert our energies and resources to more and better tests and other strategies that have questionable payoff such as closing failed schools or re-opening them under new management or with a different staff. Another questionable strategy is to provide huge amounts of professional development without fundamentally changing the curriculum.

Opinions abound on which curricular innovations make sense, and a fairly sophisticated evaluation industry is developing to determine which ones produce the best results. Opinion seems to be coalescing around a few principles that point the direction for future change. First and foremost, is that a high school is unlikely to establish academic rigor without strong interpersonal relationships and relevance of the curricula to employment and life challenges.

Relationships require a nurturing environment where faculty and students are together long enough to be able get to know and bond with one another. To provide such an environment, a growing number of high schools are assigning students to the same homeroom and/or the same counselor for all four years. Other schools use the house system in which teachers go to where the students are and students remain in the same group for all or most of their classes. This is in stark contrast to the factory model high school where students typically change work groups, supervisors (viz. teachers) and classrooms 5-6 times a day. This traditional model is particularly dysfunctional for students in poverty and those from single parent homes, many of whom have an emotional-psychological mindset that will not allow them to learn and establish in their minds a compelling vision of success.

Relationships and bonding among students and teachers is also enhanced through smaller schools or breaking down larger schools into smaller theme-oriented schools or academies that have a fair amount of operational independence.

Relevance requires strong connections to local employers and opportunities for students to be exposed to types of work in which they might be interested. School districts that understand this best are those that require students to leave high school with a marketable skill along with the requisite academic skills to enter college. These districts tend to have strong career-technical education and/or career pathways programs in which students can take 2-4 applied courses in a sequence to qualify for an entry-level job in their chosen field or to enter higher-level technical training in a college or university. Such schools offer work-based learning opportunities such as internships or apprenticeships, and they develop strong industry advisory committees that oversee technical curricula and the qualifications of those who teach these courses.

Both relationships and relevance are enhanced by teaching methods that are experiential, project-based, team-oriented and computer-assisted, thus modeling how work is performed by progressive companies in today’s global economy. Yet the vast majority of high school students today are taught via traditional “stand-and-deliver” lecture-discussion methods that tap their memory faculties and not much else.

Future Curricula Will Be Cross-disciplinary, Team-Taught, Experiential, Project-based and Computer-assisted

To transform and not merely reform, high schools will have to look more like the modern workplace where teamwork is highly valued and practiced, problems are solved through cross-disciplinary approaches, and workers (viz. students and teachers) are armed with technology to increase productivity. Schools with these characteristics will be able to produce the kinds of graduates both universities and employers say they want – “self-starters” who can collaborate effectively within and across work groups, companies, and countries both ‘live’ and virtually. To produce these self-starting team players, teachers must model such collaboration. Yet the predominant high school model remains closing the classroom door and staying within one’s disciplinary silo.

Wayne Gretsky, former ice hockey great, once said “I skate to where the puck will be.” This investigator and organizations like the National Center for Teaching and America’s Future believe that future high school teachers will need two new but essential skills: (1) how to collaborate with other teachers in integrating and co-teaching their subjects and (2) how to use technology to reach and teach students of varying ability in the same class. They will also have to manage large classes should our sputtering economy continue to wreak financial havoc on schools.

One model that applies this team-oriented, highly experiential and computer-assisted approach is the Fast Break program that the Haberman Educational Foundation ( hopes to test in a few high schools this year. Some key features of this model are as follows:

  • Instructors co-teach and fully integrate the teaching of reading, math, communications (oral and written), computer applications and career selection and employability skills. They also provide placement and follow up services.
  • All 2-4 instructors with different specialties stay with the same group of 25-60 students for most/all of the instructional day, modeling the kinds of teamwork and collaboration seen in the best companies.
  • Concentrated, 5-8 hours-a-day for 8-12 weeks program provides sufficient time on task to produce good learning habits and prevent forgetting.
  • Courseware, online testing and small group instruction facilitates teaching students of different ability levels at the same time.
  • Highly engaging curriculum is experiential, team-oriented, and project-based, and it integrates soft skills like teamwork, customer service, time management and conflict resolution into the teaching of academic skills.
  • There are no bells and annoying interruptions during the school day.
  • Students who meet Fast Break’s Achievement, Attendance and Attitudinal requirements (the “3 A’s”) are rewarded with assistance in obtaining an outcome they value, such as a career entry job, college admission, or accelerated academic credit leading to the next grade-level promotion or enrollment in advanced academic or technical training.

This model has been very successful in helping thousands of out-of-school young adults in Detroit, Los Angeles, Flint and other communities move ahead to career entry positions or college. Invariably the 17-25 years old participants say that had such a program had been available in high school they would have been much more engaged and learned much faster. Yet to accommodate this model, high schools would have to move away from their assembly line system of delivering courses. They would have to adjust scheduling and staff workload practices, and expand ways by which students can earn academic credit. Additionally, they would likely need to extend the school day and school year to get the most out of this approach. The payoff is that the model produces more learning and positive outcomes for the dollars spent than other programs and thus could serve as a template for high school transformation in an environment of diminishing resources, which is the case throughout the country and likely to remain so for the next several years.

Public Education’s Excuse Cultur

This month some 15 million high school students are returning from their summer vacations. The vast majority (80-85%) will continue to attend the industrial era comprehensive high school despite convincing evidence that these schools have not improved student performance despite major funding increases. Excuses abound. The most common are that a growing proportion of students are from poor backgrounds and that parents don’t care. The latest excuse is budget cuts due to the recession that have resulted in teacher layoffs. After all, you can’t try anything new if teachers are being laid off. Better to stay with the known system and tolerate bigger classes, no matter how ineffective

Unlike other industries where continual productivity declines results in drastic restructuring or bankruptcy, education gets a free pass because the public through their elected boards or officials buys into the excuses and continues to write the checks to support this corrupt system. It is unimaginable, for example, that large urban districts would permit schools to keep the traditional model year after year when only half the students graduate and basic skill proficiency rates are in the teens, 20s and 30s. Yet that is the case almost without exception in America’s large cities. Indeed, superintendents order principals to keep the factory model and to use certain course curricula and textbooks; they fire principals who don’t obey. Even when given some discretion, principals shy away from or are not permitted to make the truly tough decisions to re-direct resources or to lay off personnel if necessary to create the resources that will enable them to invent the future. And districts congratulate themselves if they can raise scores 3% a year, as if going from 30 to 33% proficiency is something to brag about. What about the other 67%? Or the dropouts who don’t take the test?

From top to bottom, educators insist they cannot change without more money to support transition costs such as release time to enable teachers to learn new methods, or to convert to a new testing or accountability system, or to have more mutual planning time. How many school CEOs could say to their unions (like the auto manufacturers did) that to save everyone’s job people will have to work longer hours at less compensation until they come up with a way of doing business that clearly improves performance? The big difference, of course, is that kids need to be educated and schools need to be staffed. All but the worst keep their jobs despite dropping productivity by the enterprise as a whole. If the private sector operated that way, we’d be a third world country in no time with astronomical unemployment rates.

Somehow someday educators will pony up the courage to deep six the failed comprehensive high school and develop instead high school designs with curricula that are in sync both with what their university and employer customers want AND the way today’s teenagers are, how they learn, what they value and like to be treated. It shouldn’t take a devastating natural disaster like Katrina for a district to radically change the enterprise. Let the next decade of this century be devoted to developing promising high school design options for parents. Certainly, the decision-making processes for coming up with these designs should be totally transparent, and designs should be carefully evaluated. Sure, mistakes will be made. But this is the price to pay for schools to break out of their decades-old funk of mid-pack mediocrity. Let’s go for the gold! Showing up is no longer enough.

Barry E. Stern Ph.D. Senior Fellow, Haberman International Policy Institute in Education

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