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Few At-Risk Students Are Able to Turn Around Academically, ACT Report Finds

A new report out from ACT Inc. finds that few at-risk students who start out "far off track" academically are able to recover within four years.

The Iowa City, Iowa-based testing organization examined the progress of students from certain demographic groups, including students from low-income families, those with disabilities, African-American and Hispanic students, and English-language learners. Testing students from these backgrounds who were identified as below grade level in 4th and 8th grades, and again in 8th and12th grades, researchers found they were generally not able to get back on track, as measured by ACT's college-readiness benchmarks.

The report, "Catching Up to College and Career Readiness: The Challenge is Greater for At-Risk Students," showed that despite early detection of academic struggles, students seldom were able to close the gap as they progressed through school. Two previous reports by ACT in this series found that strong preschool and elementary programs contribute to student success in later years, yet students in the general population who were behind in 4th and 8th grade struggled to improve much by middle and high school.

In this analysis, ACT reviewed student scores from 245,000 students in Arkansas and Kentucky.

The analysis concludes, for instance, that among students who were considered "far off-track" in science as 8th graders, just 2 percent of those who were low-income were able to meet the ACT science benchmarks by 12th grade, while 6 percent of those who were not low-income achieved the standard. For low-income, far-off-track students in 4th grade science, about 9 percent were able to catch up by 8th grade, according to ACT.  For those who struggled in math in 8th grade, just 1 percent met the benchmarks by high school graduation and 5 percent in that same demographic group who were behind in 4th grade improved significantly by 8th grade.

To address these gaps, the report recommends local schools teach a content-rich curriculum in the early grades, conduct a gap analysis of the district's current practices, monitor and intervene early, use data on students' prior performance in planning secondary school programs and setting goals. Federal policymakers should fund evaluation research on teaching content-rich curriculum in elementary school and encourage the use of statewide longitudinal data systems for research studies, ACT suggests.

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