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CATCHING UP TO COLLEGE AND CAREER READINESS: Performance Gaps Difficult to Close But Not Impossible, New Report Finds

“Underestimating the time and effort required [to close gaps] could lead educators and policymakers to underfund prevention efforts and choose intervention strategies that are too little and too late."

Narrowing performance gaps for low-income students and students of color requires prevention interventions over remediation, a new report from ACT finds. The report, Catching Up to College and Career Readiness, argues it is essential for educators and policymakers to understand the difficulty of preventing and closing gaps to design effective interventions.

“Underestimating the time and effort required [to close gaps] could lead educators and policymakers to underfund prevention efforts and choose intervention strategies that are too little and too late,” the report notes. “Underestimating the difficulty could also lead policymakers to hold schools to unrealistic accountability targets, creating strong incentives at various levels in the system to lower standards and artificially inflate test scores. On the other hand, overestimating the difficulty could lead educators and policymakers to give up on students.”

In an effort to determine at what point in a student’s education he or she is most able to catch up to grade-level standards, the ACT team analyzes test scores of students between forth and eight grade and those between eighth and twelfth grade.

In the report, ACT analyzes the results of 800,000 eighth graders’ performance on the standardized test EXPLORE. They determined that one-fourth of the eighth graders were “far off track,” or more than one standard deviation behind their peers in reading and mathematics. As shown in the table below, these percentages were dramatically higher for students of color. Among African Americans and Hispanics, 43 percent and 42 percent, respectively, were far off track in reading; 50 percent and 41 percent were far off track in math; and 74 and 67 percent were far off track in science.

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To gauge how well high schools were catching up students who were far behind, ACT compared eighth-grade scores to a sample of 391,000 twelfth graders who completed college-readiness benchmarks. Results show that only 10 percent of the eighth-graders who had been far off track were caught up by twelfth grade.

“Waiting until high school to address preparation gaps is too late for the majority of students who have fallen behind, particularly those who are far off track,” the report notes. “Catching up those students is a daunting challenge even for the most effective high schools.”

ACT also studied how well fourth graders who were far off track could be caught up by eighth grade. It compared 38,000 fourth-graders’ results on a standardized test in one state (Arkansas) to the same students’ eighth-grade results. Of the 20 percent of fourth-grade students who were far off track in reading and mathematics, only 9 percent of them had caught up and were on track in reading; 10 percent were considered on track in math.

In both comparisons, higher-achieving schools and lower-poverty schools had slightly better numbers in remediating students who were far behind.

The report offers four recommendations to educators and policymakers:

  • Monitor student progress early to identify students who are off track and ensure that they receive needed interventions.
  • Emphasize approaches likely to have a broad positive effect on the entire student population.
  • Evaluate programs for middle and high school students based on the programs’ effectiveness with students with different initial levels of academic preparation.
  • Set reasonable growth goals based on student performance in more successful schools and ensure that goals for percentages of students reaching college and career readiness take into account the students’ starting points and the number of years the school has available to catch them up.

Read the full report at

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