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RIGOR AT RISK: ACT Finds that Core High School Curriculum Lacks Rigor, Leads to Unprepared High School Graduates

“We’ve been urging college-bound students to take the core curriculum in high school for many years,” said Cynthia B. Schmeiser

At a time when it is becoming more important for U.S. workers to compete internationally, the nation’s high school graduates too often enter college or the workforce without sufficient academic preparation. So says Rigor at Risk, a new report from ACT, Inc. According to the report, American high school core courses lack the rigor necessary to adequately prepare students for life after high school—whether in postsecondary education or in the workplace. In fact, the report shows that three out of four ACT-tested Class of 2006 high school graduates who took a core curriculum were not prepared to take or succeed in credit-bearing entry-level college courses.1 ACT also finds that even students who take additional higher-level courses are not always ready for college and suggests that many students lose academic momentum during their last two years of high school.

“We’ve been urging college-bound students to take the core curriculum in high school for many years,” said Cynthia B. Schmeiser, president and chief operating officer of ACT’s education division. “But now it is clear that just taking the right number of courses is no longer enough to ensure that students will be ready for college when they graduate. Students must take a number of additional higher-level courses in high school to have a reasonable chance of succeeding in college courses, and even that does not guarantee success.”

While students who take the recommended core curriculum are likely to be more prepared for college courses than students who do not take these courses, the report notes that merely taking the right number of courses is not enough to ensure that students are college-ready. According to the report, only about one fourth of students who took the core curriculum are ready for college-level work in English, mathematics, social science, and natural science. ACT also finds that about 20 percent of students are not college-ready in any subject and that nearly 75 percent of Class of 2006 high school graduates who took the ACT lack preparation in at least one subject area.2

On the other hand, high school graduates who took core courses plus additional higher-level courses met the ACT College Benchmarks in greater percentages than graduates who took only the core curriculum.3 As shown in the table below, 67 percent of students who took only the core curriculum met the ACT College Benchmark in English. Meanwhile, 77 percent of students who took more than the core curriculum in English met the benchmark—a 10 percent difference.


“Core” Students

“Core+” Students















The chart also demonstrates, however, that merely taking additional courses will not guarantee college readiness. For example, 23 percent of students who took the core curriculum plus additional courses in English failed to meet the ACT benchmark. The same was true for 62 percent of students in science and 25 percent in math. For this reason, ACT suggests a close examination of the quality and intensity of the high school curriculum. “It is neither realistic nor justifiable to expect all high school students to take more and more courses to learn what they need to learn for college,” the report reads. “Improving the rigor of high school core courses benefits not just those students who are traditionally considered bound for college, but the majority of high school students who typically have not benefited from advanced coursework or other similar efforts to increase college readiness.”

After examining the core courses required to graduate from high school, ACT finds that more than half of the states do not require students to take specific core courses in math or science. It also finds that only twenty-six states require any mathematics courses at all. Of those twenty-six states, only twelve require Algebra II and only four require a math course beyond Algebra II. In science, thirty states require at least one course for graduation, but only seventeen require biology and only two require physics. That so few students are taking advanced classes in math and science is especially troubling because students who take these courses are much more likely to be prepared for college.

In its report, ACT recommends that states spell out the number and the kinds of courses that students need to take to graduate from high school and that these courses be aligned to the requirements of postsecondary education. Specifically, it recommends that students take four years of English, at least three years of mathematics (including rigorous courses in Algebra I, geometry, and Algebra II), three years of science (including rigorous courses in biology, chemistry, and physics), and three years of social studies.

However, simply taking Algebra II or physics will not necessarily help a student if the class lacks rigor. In fact, the report finds that even students who succeed in high school are not necessarily prepared for college. For example, 43 percent of ACT-tested Class of 2005 high school graduates who earned a grade of ‘A’ or ‘B’ in Algebra II did not meet the ACT College Readiness Benchmark in math. In addition, 53 percent of graduates who earned a grade of ‘A’ or ‘B’ in physics did not meet the ACT College Readiness Benchmark in science.

Another barrier to better college preparation that the report identifies is the large percentages of students who enter high school without the knowledge and skills they need to succeed. As evidence, the report cites a recent ACT survey in which teachers of entering high school students report spending from one fifth to one third of their time in the classroom reteaching skills that should have been learned prior to high school. To better serve their students, the report says, middle schools should examine their curricula to ensure that they reflect what students need to be successful in high school.

Another problem the report identifies is the fact that teachers who are not professionally qualified to teach or who are not yet experienced enough to teach well are often assigned to lower-level courses and to those students who are furthest behind and need the most help. ACT recommends that schools evaluate whether they are assigning the right teachers to the right core courses and ensure that inexperienced teachers are not disproportionately assigned to teach students who need the most help and who could benefit from more experienced teachers.

The complete report is available at

1) The report defines a core curriculum as four years of English and three years each of mathematics, science, and social studies.
2) It is important to remember that these statistics do not reflect those students who drop out of high school or those students who do not take the ACT. Were these groups of students given the ACT, it is reasonable to expect the percentage of students who lack college skills to be higher.
3) The ACT College Readiness Benchmarks represent the “level of achievement required for students to have a high probability of success (a 75 percent chance of earning a course grade of ‘C’ or better, and a 50 percent chance of earning a ‘B’ or better) in such credit-bearing college courses as English composition, algebra, and biology.”

Lack of College-Educated Workers Will Hamper California’s Economy in the Near Future


In 2005, the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) released California 2025: Taking on the Future, a report that examined the future of California’s workforce and the jobs that would await them. The report notes that California would suffer from a dearth of college graduates by 2020. Specifically, although 75 percent of all jobs in 2020 would require either some college or a college degree, only 61 percent of the population would have these qualifications. On the other end of the spectrum, PPI found that 22 percent of California’s workers will have less than a high school diploma, but only 11 percent of California’s jobs will accept such a low level of education.

The report also notes that Latinos are projected to become the largest racial group in the state within a decade and will eventually reach majority status. Yet Latinos are poorly served by California’s education system and generally have lower levels of education.

“In the coming decades, if California’s youth do not get a college education, they face the prospect of low or no employment, lack of opportunities for high-paying jobs, and greater likelihood of depending on public health and social services,” the report reads. “They will also generate lower tax revenues for supporting the state’s infrastructure and other services needs.”

In Can California Import Enough College Graduates to Meet Workforce Needs?, a newly published follow-up to the California 2025 report, PPIC finds that California should not expect to be able to import the college graduates that it needs from other states and countries to fill highly skilled jobs. As a result, the state should “rein in expectations” about what its economy will look like in twenty years.

“Inevitably, if education levels in the state don’t catch up, the economy will adjust in one way or another,” says PPIC Director of Research Deborah Reed, who coauthored the study with PPIC research fellow and demographer Hans Johnson. “The workforce of 2025 will be skilled, but will not be as skilled—and the economy not as productive or high-income—as current projections imply.”

One reason for California’s low levels of education attainment is that the state has trouble retaining its own college graduates, in part because of California’s high cost of housing. According to the report, 658,000 college-educated California residents left the state between 2000 and 2005, while approximately 612,000 college-educated migrants came to California from other states—a net loss of 46,000 college graduates.

PPIC notes that immigrants have provided California with skilled labor in the past, but it estimates that the already robust arrival rate of skilled immigrants would have to more than double to meet the projected demand. According to the report, the population of immigrants with college degrees has grown almost thirtyfold since 1960, and foreign-born residents now make up 31 percent of all California’s college graduates ages twenty-five to sixty-four. It adds that between 2000 and 2005, for the first time, immigrants to California with a college degree exceeded the number of immigrants who were not high school graduates.

“For either foreign or domestic migrants to fill California’s skills gap would require migration of unprecedented magnitude,” says Johnson. “That seems implausible, if not impossible.”

The report recommends that, rather than continuing to rely solely on well-educated immigrants, California turn its attention to raising the college entrance and graduation rates among its own residents. “Public policy has a critical role to play because the vast majority of California’s college students are attending public institutions,” said Johnson. “The state has significant latitude to implement policies that could directly address participation and completion rates—and if there was ever a time to do that, it’s now.”

Can California Import Enough College Graduates to Meet Workforce Needs? is available at

California 2025: Taking on the Future is available at


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