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THE FORGOTTEN MIDDLE: Students Not on College- and Work-Readiness Track by Eighth Grade Less Likely to Graduate Prepared, Says ACT Report

“So although the gates of high school are technically open to all students, for more than 80 percent of them the door to their futures may already be closed.”

The level of academic achievement students reach by eighth grade has a greater impact on their college- and work-readiness than anything that happens academically in high school. Unfortunately, most eighth graders are not on track to be college- and work-ready upon graduation, according to The Forgotten Middle: Ensuring that All Students Are on Target for College and Career Readiness before High School, a new report from ACT.

Fewer than twenty percent of eighth graders met all four of ACT’s EXPLORE College Readiness Benchmarks (in English, math, reading, and science). The benchmarks are scores on an ACT-administered test that represent the level of achievement required for eighth graders to be considered on target to be college- and work-ready by the time they graduate from high school. “This means that more than eight of ten eighth-grade students do not have the knowledge and skills they need to enter high school and succeed there,” the report reads. “So although the gates of high school are technically open to all students, for more than 80 percent of them the door to their futures may already be closed.”

ACT finds that, on average, only students who were on target for college- and work-readiness in the eighth grade were actually ready in eleventh or twelfth grade. Students who fell short in the eighth grade, even slightly, were generally not considered ready for college and career as juniors and seniors.

Besides eighth-grade achievement, other predictors of college- and career-readiness the study analyzed included background characteristics such as gender, race/ethnicity, parent education level, family income, and main language spoken at home; course work; high school grade point average; and student testing behaviors—that is, students’ age and grade level when they take the ACT, whether they retook it, and whether they shared updated course work and grade information if they retested.

forgotten middle

However, none of the other predictors of college- and career-readiness studied by ACT had as much impact as eighth-grade achievement. In English, student testing behaviors, with a magnitude of effect at 21 percent, was a distant second-place indicator, followed by high school grade point average (GPA) and advanced/honors course work, as shown in the chart to the right.

ACT finds similar results in science, where student testing behaviors and background characteristics had the next highest effect after eighth-grade achievement; in mathematics, background characteristics were the second-most effective indicator. Separate analyses of racial and ethnic minority students and by students’ family income level (less than $30,000, between $30,000 and $100,000, and more than $100,000) showed similar results.

The report finds that in order to ensure that students are adequately prepared and on target to be college- and work-ready by eighth grade, interventions must be made in the previous grades. It makes the following four recommendations to boost academic achievement and preparedness for postsecondary success: 1) focus K–8 standards on the knowledge and skills necessary for college- and work-readiness, and require them for all students; 2) monitor student progress and intervene with students who are not on target for readiness, starting in the upper elementary grades and continuing through middle school; 3) improve students’ academic behaviors; and 4) increase federal and state support for schools to implement intervention programs.

The full report can be downloaded at

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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.