Too Many Graduates Not Ready for Work or College

Published December 1, 2004

Elementary and secondary schools in the U.S. are failing to equip many high school graduates with the skills necessary to succeed in college-level coursework or workforce training, concludes a new report from ACT. To prepare students properly for college and the workplace, the report urges strengthening the high school core curriculum and ensuring K-8 students have mastered foundational skills in reading, writing, and math before entering high school.

Since the publication of A Nation At Risk in 1983, ACT has advocated a “core” curriculum of required courses, consisting of four years of English and three years each of math, natural sciences, and social sciences. However, ACT’s new report makes the case that this “core” is no longer sufficient for individuals to succeed in college and in the workplace, or for the U.S. to succeed in the global marketplace.

“Our nation simply can’t afford to keep producing high school graduates who are ill-prepared to succeed in college and the workforce if we want to maintain our economic competitiveness throughout the world,” said Richard L. Ferguson, ACT’s chief executive officer.

In August, when the latest ACT scores were released for the high school graduating class of 2004, the good news was that the average national ACT composite score increased–to 20.9–for the first time in seven years. The bad news was that “an alarming number” of graduates still had not mastered the academic skills needed to handle first-year college science and math courses. The new report from ACT, titled “Crisis at the Core: Preparing All Students for College and Work,” details that lack of preparedness.

Of the 1.2 million high school graduates who took the ACT Assessment in 2004, fewer than 1 in 4 (22 percent) achieved scores that would signify readiness for college work in English, math, and science.

Students who take more than the core high school curriculum have a greater probability of meeting college benchmarks. For example, 71 percent of students who take speech in addition to four years of English meet the ACT Benchmark for College English Composition; without the speech course, the percentage meeting the benchmark drops to 68; and without four years of English, the percentage drops to 57. A similar pattern occurs with the math course sequence in relation to the percentage of students meeting the ACT Benchmark for College Algebra.

While strengthening the core high school curriculum is one component of improving college readiness, the ACT report makes clear that part of the problem originates even earlier, in the elementary school curriculum, where many students are not learning the foundational skills needed to handle rigorous high school coursework.

“Too often, students who struggle with foundational skills are not diagnosed early enough to correct the problems,” said Ferguson. “When they reach high school, they are too far behind to catch up. They need to be identified and assisted much earlier.”

At the high school level, ACT’s research shows student performance and college readiness are strongly affected by certain courses the group calls “Courses for Success”: biology, chemistry, physics, and advanced math beyond algebra II.

For example, value-added analysis of the 2004 test data shows the following incremental ACT score increase for taking the following courses in sequence over and above taking Less than Core alone, with Core being Algebra I, Algebra II, and Geometry: Core (+1.8 points), Advanced Math (+1.7 points), Trigonometry (+1.9 points), and Calculus (+2.3 points). Thus, while taking Less than Core alone yields an average ACT score of 17.3, taking Core, Advanced Math, Trigonometry, and Calculus as well yields an average ACT score of 25.0.

A similar value-added pattern is shown with the science course sequence above General Science alone: Biology (+0.6 points), Chemistry (+1.3 points), and Physics (+1.3 points). Thus, while taking General Science alone yields an average ACT score of 18.0, taking Biology, Chemistry, and Physics as well yields an average ACT score of 21.2.

George A. Clowes ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News.

For more information …

Further information about the October 2004 report from ACT, “Crisis at the Core: Preparing All Students for College and Work,” is available online at

The full report is available at