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The High School Work of College Readiness

Only a day after the White House Summit on Community Colleges made me wonder if a focus on high school might be getting lost in the commendable shuffle toward higher education, the ACT convened a discussion of its new report about—yes!—what is needed to get high school students ready to succeed in college.

The study, called "Mind the Gaps," reminds us that far more high school students say they plan to attend college than the number of students who actually enroll. Cynthia Schmeiser, the president of the ACT's education division, told a gathering here in Washington, D.C., today that the students who fall off the college pathway typically do so because they "have simply not had the same level of preparation for postsecondary [education] as other students."

But "when kids are prepared for college," Schmeiser said, "college achievement gaps narrow in remarkable ways."

The ACT's research already had found that key high school factors correlate with a better chance of college success, such as producing certain scores on its ACT college entrance exam, taking a strong core curriculum, and taking additional coursework in math and science. Doing those things makes it more likely that a student will enroll in college, hang around for a second year of college, get good grades and be able to skip remedial classes.

So ACT's researchers decided to see how those ideas could be applied to closing the racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic gaps in college-going and college-success rates. And they found that those gaps could be narrowed substantially by building a broader base of college readiness among high school students. (See the section of the report beginning on page 37 for this discussion.)

Among all students in the class of 2007 who took the ACT, researchers found a 14-point gap between white students and racial minority students in the rate at which they enrolled in college within a year of graduation. But among ACT-takers who met college readiness benchmarks in all four subjects, the gap was only 6 points. Similar gap-closing dynamics were found when researchers examined the rates at which students re-enrolled for a second year of college, got good grades, and avoided remedial classes. This was true for racial/ethnic gaps as well as for those based on family income level.

The study shows, Schmeiser said, "that ensuring kids are prepared for college by the time they leave high school is the single most important thing we can do to improve college completion rates."

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