ACT Report Reveals Low-Income Students Are Less Prepared for College Success

Posted By Eliana Osborn on February 19, 2016 at 11:43 am
ACT Report Reveals Low-Income Students Are Less Prepared for College Success

The ACT released a new report about low-income students and families. With lots of data from the hundreds of thousands of high schoolers who take the ACT each year, the company has found a continuing lack of college readiness.

Fully half of ACT takers meet zero of the benchmarks for college success, basic scores in four subject areas that indicate a good chance of earning a passing grade. By this and other measures, poor students in America are not being adequately prepared for educational and career success.

In a letter of introduction preceding the report, The Condition of College and Career Readiness 2015, the authors remind education policy makers, “We cannot expect better results without doing some things differently.”  Colleges can work to increase access and provide support for students, but they cannot be the only source of change.  Primary and secondary schools must bear responsibility for delivering quality education to all students.

Low-income students performed lower in all subject areas

More than 440,000 students took the ACT in 2015 coming from families who earned less than $36,000 a year.  Just 11% of these students met benchmarks in all four areas the ACT tests: English, reading, math and science.  For all students, not just low-income, 28% hit that standard.  Between 2011 and 2015, these numbers changed less than 1%.

For families making more than $100,000 a year, 63% of their students hit the four-subject benchmark.  In every area, more than twice as many wealthy students scored at the benchmark as did their lower-income peers.  The greatest disparity showed up in math, where 65% top-income students reached the mark compared to just 20% of the lowest income group.

Even students from the next quartile of earnings—those making between $36,000 and $60,000—fare significantly better than those at the lower level.  In English, 62% versus 44% met the benchmark.  For reading, 42% to 28%.  Math: 37% to 22%.  Science: 33% to 20%.

Expanding perceptions, readiness for college and career choices

The ACT asks other questions of students outside of the testing portions.  Responses about college plans also reveal differences in how different economic groups perceive their educational futures.  80% of all test takers indicate a major they are interested in studying in college.  The other 20% were undecided.  The most common field for low-income respondents was nursing, yet only 6% of them are likely to be successful in college based on their ACT scores.  Readiness percentages are the highest for those indicating an interest in biochemistry and computer programming though still only 30%.

After so many measures of low-income students and their lack of readiness, the report issues a call to action.  Three areas of policy emphasis are listed:

  • Adopt a systemic agenda to improve postsecondary access, readiness and success
  • Focus on early awareness and intervention
  • Support low-income students and families through the college-going process
  • Use data to personalize engagement and support

These are lofty initiatives few could disagree with.  Statewide partnerships that focus on the whole educational vertical from elementary through college are already built in many areas.  The ACT works with willing states on readiness programs for different age levels to use data for effective interventions.  If the status quo is to change so that education is truly accessible to all students, more such partnerships will be necessary.

Eliana Osborn
Eliana Osborn is an associate English professor at Arizona Western College, with degrees from Brigham Young University and Northern Arizona University. She’s published widely in forums such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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