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ACT: Better Preparation, Not Just More Courses, Is Key to STEM Readiness

When states and districts start banging the drum about college and career readiness in the STEM fields, they shouldn't just ramp up graduation requirements. They need to make sure that their high school students are academically ready for challenging coursework.

That's the key message of a new report from ACT. Issued this week, "Missing the Mark" finds that increasing graduation requirements, all by itself, is unlikely to make students readier for college or careers. What they need are courses that are truly rigorous, and adequate preparation for those courses.

"State policymakers may be unrealistic in expecting that raising math and science graduation requirements alone through state policy will improve student outcomes," the report said. "Despite the introduction of higher graduation requirements in math and science, there was little effect on student course taking,
achievement, or college enrollment."

The findings of ACT's report may resonate nationally, since so many states and districts are increasingly aware of the importance that those courses have for students planning STEM careers. Stepping up graduation requirements, however, poses distinct challenges for the least well-prepared students, the report said.

"New requirements effectively target students that may have weaker preparation and motivation for college rather than the group currently choosing more advanced math and science courses," it said. 

The study takes Illinois as a case study. The state passed a law in 2005 that required high school students to take at least three years of math and two years of science. Examining what happened in nine graduating classes in response to that law, ACT saw trends in three areas:

Coursetaking. The law didn't change students' enrollment patterns in math, but it did prompt more students—particularly those in the bottom half of the class—to enroll in more science courses. In 2005, 78 percent of lower-ranking students were taking two years of science; by 2013, that figure went up to 88 percent. Researchers concluded that this increase was in response to the law because they compared it to increases in districts that had already been enforcing those higher graduation requirements on their own. In those districts, science course-taking increased by only 5 percentage points.

Achievement. Requiring more math and science courses had no effect on how well students did in those subjects on the ACT college-entrance exam. Researchers speculated that this could be because students who opt to take heavier math and science courseloads might be better prepared or more motivated than those who are required to do so. ACT scores in math and science for Illinois students edged up slightly during the study period, but that applied to all districts, not just those that had to increase their requirements in response to the law.

College Enrollment. Students in school districts that had to increase math graduation requirements because of the law enrolled in college at faster rates than students in unaffected districts, the ACT found. That held true for both higher- and lower-achieving students. In districts that had to raise their science requirements, however, there wasn't an accompanying rise in college enrollment rates, the report said.

The study concludes that an earlier focus on preparation and support is warranted.

"Efforts should be focused on early preparation to ensure that students have better skills by the time they reach high school," it says. "For students already in high school, targeted remediation efforts are necessary, and the remediation efforts may need to be differentiated by ability level, distinguishing students with very weak ability from those only slightly behind."

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