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CRISIS AT THE CORE: New Report Stresses “Courses for Success” to Help Ensure College Readiness

"while taking a core curriculum certainly helps students raise their level of academic preparation and meet high school graduation requirements, it does not necessarily mean that a student is ready for college-level work."

A Nation at Risk, a ground-breaking report released by the U.S. Department of Education in 1983, recommended that all high school students should be required to take a core curriculum consisting of four years of English, three years of mathematics, three years of science, three years of social studies, and a half-year of computer science. The report also recommended that college-bound students should take two years of foreign language. Now, over 20 years later, many high school students still do not complete the core curriculum outlined in A Nation at Risk. Even those who do complete the core curriculum and graduate from high school often find themselves not adequately prepared for college or other post-secondary training.

According to Crisis at the Core: Preparing All Students for College and Work, a new report from ACT, “while taking a core curriculum certainly helps students raise their level of academic preparation and meet high school graduation requirements, it does not necessarily mean that a student is ready for college-level work.” In fact, research has shown that nearly one-third of all college students enroll in some type of remedial course to learn the skills they should have obtained in high school. Of those who enroll as freshmen in four-year colleges, 25 percent do not return for their sophomore year; of those entering two-year institutions, 50 percent fail to return for a second year.

Of those tested by ACT from the Class of 2004, only 26 percent met the “College Readiness Benchmark,”1 which demonstrated their likelihood to be successful in a college-level biology course. Only 40 percent were ready for a college-level math class, and only 68 percent were adequately prepared for a college English composition course. In total, only 22 percent of ACT-tested high school graduates met or exceeded the benchmarks in all three subjects. Sadly, ACT projects that younger students-those now in the eighth or tenth grade-will be no better prepared for college than their older siblings who are graduating now.

To better equip students for postsecondary success, the ACT report recommends that every high school student should be prepared for and encouraged to enroll and perform well in what it calls “courses for success.” These are courses that should be taken in addition to the core curriculum, and include one or more advanced mathematics courses beyond algebra II (such as trigonometry), and courses in biology, chemistry, and physics. The report found that when students take one or more of these advanced courses, they have the “best chance to be ready to enter college and work without need for remediation.”

For example, 74 percent of students who took trigonometry and calculus in addition to the three-course core curriculum of algebra I, algebra II, and geometry met the benchmark for college algebra. Among students who took the three core courses plus trigonometry, 55 percent met the benchmark. In science, only 19 percent of students who took the core curriculum of general science, biology, and chemistry met the benchmark, compared with 45 percent who took biology, chemistry, and physics.

“The news is encouraging,” said Richard L. Ferguson, ACT’s chief executive officer. “Our research shows that students don’t have to take honors or advanced placement courses to be ready for college. If we can ensure that both the core courses and the ‘Courses for Success’ focus on rigorous skills in all high schools, then students will have an opportunity to be better prepared for college and the workplace.”

To advance its goal of graduating high school seniors who are college ready, Ferguson said ACT will partner with a number of states in Ready to Succeed, a demonstration project that focuses on, among other things, course rigor. As part of the project, selected school districts will work with a team of specialists to evaluate the rigor of their coursework, identify the skills that should be taught in these classes, and measure improvements in student achievement.

ACT is an independent, not-for-profit organization that provides more than a hundred assessment, research, information, and program management services in the broad areas of education and workforce development.

The complete report is available at

New online “toolbox” offers practical resources to help schools improve college accessThe Pathways to College Network has created a systematic, research-based resource to help schools and college outreach programs increase the number of students preparing for postsecondary education. College Readiness for All: A Practitioner’s Toolbox helps educators learn about what works from research and examples, assess their present status and plan change, access resources for implementing their plans, and monitor progress toward achieving their goal of college-ready high school graduates.”Leaders and practitioners in many school districts across the country recognize that a postsecondary education is fast becoming a minimum standard for all Americans,” said Ann Coles, director of the Pathways to College Network and senior vice president of the Education Resources Institute. “But making the necessary changes can seem overwhelming. This comprehensive toolbox makes real change manageable.”

The Toolbox represents the next step in Pathways’ action plan to improve college access. This resource builds on the research and ideas outlined in the Pathways’ publication A Shared Agenda, released earlier this year and available at

The Toolbox offers individual guides for principals, counselors, and college outreach practitioners. Each section provides a user’s guide, presentations, checklists, inventories, and assessment tools. The Toolbox is available without charge on the Pathways to College Network website:


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