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ACT Report Reveals Troubling Labor Outcomes from Achievement Trends

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October 26, 2012 07:39 pm


Despite having once been the global leader in education, the performance of American students in K–12 schools has lagged behind their international peers for well over a decade. Further, the nation’s education system is being challenged by a technology-driven global economy that requires a skilled and highly literate workforce.

This new global economy requires that students acquire deeper leaning skills, including the ability to think critically and solve complex problems; communicate effectively; be self-directed and able to appropriately incorporate feedback; and know and master core academic content. Providing all students with deeper leaning skills that prepare them for college and a career is critical for these students’ futures and our nation’s economy, and yet too many students are currently underserved and, consequently, dropping out of high school or college. A recent ACT report titled Implications of Educational Trends for Labor Market Outcomes makes a compelling contribution to the case for substantially increasing efforts to reach students at risk of dropping out.

ACT’s report reveals an unfortunate finding: significant gaps continue to exist in the rates of educational attainment among students of different ethnicities. For example, within a cohort of 2009 high school graduates examined for the study, 82 percent of white students received a high school diploma while fewer black (64 percent) and Hispanic (66 percent) students walked across the stage during commencement. Even more stark was the finding that only 52 percent of white students in this same cohort went on to earn either an associate’s or bachelor’s degree; for the black and Hispanic students, these figures were just 21 and 16 percent, respectively. The data is clear: most students of color are not receiving a twenty-first-century education and of those who are, only a handful matriculate into postsecondary education.

The ACT report also considers student academic preparedness for postsecondary education by examining student achievement on an eighth-grade assessment designed to predict rates of high school completion and postsecondary performance. The study finds that students scoring in the 75th percentile on this assessment were six times more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than students who scored in the 25th percentile. Similarly, students in the 75th percentile graduated from high school at a rate that was 10 percentage points above the average, while their peers in the 25th percentile graduated at a rate that was 15 percentage points below the average.

The report concludes, “A one point score improvement for a student at the 25th achievement percentile would have a much larger effect on educational attainment than a comparable increase at the 75th percentile.” This suggests a compelling rationale for focusing on these students early and often.

Early warning indicator systems, if properly implemented and utilized, could identify students in need of additional supports while they are still in the elementary and middle grades. Such systems could also provide these students with the necessary interventions to increase achievement and preparedness. For more on the Alliance’s work on early warning indicator systems, click here.

Although research shows that high school dropouts typically lag behind their peers who completed high school, the report suggests that many dropouts were not far behind their classmates who graduated, and some were even on track to attend postsecondary education. The ACT report examined dropouts’ backgrounds and pre–high school preparation and notes, “Even without big improvements … some dropouts would have continued on to college, if they had simply stayed the course and made normal progress in high school.”

Using predictive modeling, the ACT study finds, “about 51 percent of dropouts would have continued on to college if they had successfully completed high school.” The key conclusion is that many of these students were achieving at a level that would have positioned them to earn a high school diploma, and possibly enroll in college, but somewhere along the line, they got off track and dropped out.

Developing systemic ways to identify and retain these students must be a major priority. High school dropouts are a missed opportunity for the American workforce and society as a whole; having a labor force with the skills needed to fill available positions is essential for economic growth.

Anthony Carnevale and his colleagues at Georgetown University consider this issue and warn, “By 2018, we will need 22 million new college degrees—but will fall short of that number by at least 3 million postsecondary degrees, Associate’s or better. In addition, [the nation] will need at least 4.7 million new workers with postsecondary certificates.” The economy will never fill those additional positions by 2018 if schools are not able to reach students and keep them from dropping out.

ACT’s study offers three important insights: (1) the American K–12 education system is underserving large groups of students as evidenced by the disparities in graduation and college enrollment rates; (2) early warning indicator systems, could help identify students in need of support and prevent them from falling off track; and (3) providing supports and services for students with lower achievement levels would substantially increase the levels of preparedness for high school, graduation rates, and college enrollment rates for these students.

The U.S. education system must do much more to address high school dropouts before this problem grows even worse. The above-cited ACT analysis confirms that identifying and engaging students who are likely to drop out and keeping them on the right path would ensure that by their senior year they are walking across the graduation stage, rather than out the door and away from future opportunities and success.


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