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ACT Report Highlights the Challenge of Catching Up At-Risk Students

May 29 2014

Very few students from at-risk demographic groups—including ethnic minorities, English language learners, those from low-income families and those with disabilities—who start off “far off track“ academically are able to get back on track by four years later, according to a policy report released today by ACT.

The report, Catching Up to College and Career Readiness: The Challenge is Greater for At-Risk Students, defines “far off track” students as those who scored more than a full standard deviation below the “on track” target for their grade level. In grades 8 and 12, the “on track” targets are the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks on ACT Explore® and the ACT® college readiness assessment, respectively. In grade 4, the “on track” target is the state test score that predicts the student has at least a 50 percent chance of meeting the ACT Explore benchmark.

The report shows the difficulty of closing student performance gaps even when they are identified as early as 4th or 8th grade.

It is the third in a series of ACT reports on the importance of early learning across the educational continuum. The first report, Catching Up to College and Career Readiness,  demonstrated the difficulty of getting far-off-track 4th and 8th grade students caught up by middle and high school, respectively. The second report, Catching Up to College and Career Readiness: The Importance of Early Learning, identified key components of a strong preschool and elementary school education program that can keep students on track for later success. The new report, the last in the series, shifts the focus to students from at-risk demographic groups.

Some notable findings from the report:

  • Only 2 percent of low-income, far-off-track 8th graders were able to meet the ACT College Readiness Benchmark for science by high school graduation, compared to 6 percent of their non–low-income counterparts.
  • It may be slightly easier to catch up low-income, far-off-track students in earlier grades. By the time they reached 8th grade, 9 percent of low-income 4th graders in the far-off-track group were able to meet the 8th-grade science benchmark.
  • The same pattern is evident in mathematics: only 1 percent of low-income, far-off-track 8th graders were able to meet the 12th-grade benchmark for mathematics by high school graduation, while 5 percent of low-income, far-off-track 4th graders were able to meet the 8th-grade benchmark for mathematics by the time they reached 8th grade.

“The findings for at-risk students are particularly concerning,” said Scott Montgomery, ACT vice president of policy, advocacy and government relations. “Preparation gaps that are already evident in elementary school appear to become harder to close as students progress through school. The findings are an urgent reminder of the need to monitor student performance and intervene as early as possible.”

The ACT report uses data from approximately 245,000 students in two states: Arkansas and Kentucky. The state education agencies supplied the data needed to link student enrollment and test records across the grade spans and to disaggregate students into multiple demographic groups.

Catching Up to College and Career Readiness: The Challenge is Greater for At-Risk Students report can be viewed and downloaded for free on the ACT website at:  http://www.act.org/research/policymakers/reports/catchingup.html.