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THE GAP DEFINED: ACT Report Cites Poor State Standards and Assessments as Possible Reason for GapBetween Postsecondary Expectations and High School Practice

“There clearly is a significant gap between what high school teachers and college faculty expect of students,” said Cynthia B. Schmeiser

A new study by ACT finds a gap between what high schools are teaching in their core college preparatory courses and what postsecondary educators expect entering students to know in order for them to succeed in first-year courses. The report, Aligning Postsecondary Expectations and High School Practice: The Gap Defined, attributes the disconnect to unfocused state standards and state assessments that do not adequately measure what students need to know in college.

“There clearly is a significant gap between what high school teachers and college faculty expect of students,” said Cynthia B. Schmeiser, president and chief operating officer of ACT’s education division. “State policymakers and education leaders must work to close this gap by taking a more integrated approach to education and aligning their learning standards with college requirements.”

Currently, however, ACT argues that the “extensive demands” of state standards may be forcing high school teachers to treat all content topics as important, thereby sacrificing depth for breadth. In fact, according to the report, high school teachers across all subject areas (English/writing, reading, mathematics, and science) rate teaching their students advanced content as “important” or “very important.” But college instructors would rather see students arrive in postsecondary classes having gotten an in-depth understanding of the fundamentals of a subject area and strong basic skills.

For example, in writing, postsecondary instructors valued basic writing mechanics such as sentence structure and punctuation, while high school instructors ranked these skills as less important. In math, postsecondary instructors gave greater importance to understanding and rigorously applying fundamental principles, while high school teachers focused on advanced math content.

Postsecondary and high school teachers do concur on one issue: that students need better reading skills. Despite this agreement, however, the report points out that there is a “general lack of reading courses in high school” and a “decline in the teaching of targeted reading strategies after ninth grade.” As a solution, ACT recommends more instruction in reading and reading strategies throughout the high school years.

“All courses in high school, not just English and social studies but mathematics and science as well, must challenge students to read and understand complex texts,” the report reads. “Students … must be given more opportunities to read challenging materials across the curriculum so that they are better positioned to comprehend complex texts in all subjects once they enter college or the workplace.”

Another problem that stems from state standards that are not focused on what students need to know is that assessments designed to measure those standards will not focus on college readiness either. As a remedy, ACT suggests that states better target their standards to focus on the essential knowledge and skills in each content area, rather than trying to encapsulate a broad array of topics and skills. States should then align their assessments to these new standards and seek empirical evidence that their standards and assessments are “actually preparing and measuring student readiness for postsecondary work.”

Among its other solutions, the report suggests that states establish core course requirements for high school graduation and begin measuring college readiness in eighth grade and continue through the twelfth grade. It adds that colleges can provide data to high schools on how well their students are performing in college. In turn, high schools could use this data to improve the quality of their courses and identify the subject areas in which their graduates had difficulty once they got to college.

The complete report is available at


Nine States Adopt Common Math Test; Are Voluntary National Standards the Next Step?


During a time when state standards are routinely faulted for their lack of rigor, a group of states have joined together to develop a common math test that could be one of the first steps on the road toward national education standards. Announced on April 10, the joint effort means that students in nine states—Arkansas, Kentucky, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island—will receive the same test in Algebra II and therefore will be expected to have the same understanding of the subject.

“This test demonstrates the ability of states to come together to establish consistent expectations for student achievement, anchored in the real-world demands students will face when they complete high school,” said Dr. Ken James, commissioner of the Arkansas Department of Education. “The test will allow us to compare performance across states and to drive consistent rigor and content in high school Algebra II courses. Most importantly, it will help us determine what works so we can adjust both the curriculum and instruction accordingly.”

Research has shown that Algebra II is one of several “gatekeeper” courses in high school that can predict future success in college. In fact, according to a February 2006 report from the U.S. Department of Education, high school students who complete Algebra II are twice as likely to earn a bachelor’s degree as those who do not.

The test will be first administered in May 2008 to approximately 200,000 students in the nine states. The other forty-one states will also be allowed to administer the test and join the partnership, which is an initiative of the American Diploma Project (ADP) Network. ADP is a group of twenty-nine states committed to preparing all students for college and work that was launched in 2004 by Achieve, Inc., in partnership with the Education Trust and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

More information on the common math test is available from the Achieve press release at


National Math and Science Institute Accepting Grants to Improve Student Achievement in Math and Science


The National Math and Science Institute (NMSI) is now accepting applications for two grant programs designed to improve American students’ performance in math and science courses.

The first program will award grants of up to $13 million to nonprofits in ten states to increase the number of students taking and succeeding on rigorous College Board Advanced Placement (AP) exams in mathematics, science, and English. Specifically, NMSI will award grants to replicate the work of Advanced Placement Strategies (APS) in other states. APS is a nonprofit organization that implements training and incentive programs for AP and pre-AP mathematics, science, and English courses.

The second project will award grants of up to $2.4 million to ten nonprofit institutions of higher education to start UTeach-type programs. UTeach, developed at the University of Texas at Austin, is designed to attract mathematics, science, and computer science undergraduates to the teaching profession. It allows students to graduate in four years with teacher certification and a BS degree in mathematics or science. The program currently certifies more than seventy teachers per year, and 92 percent go on immediately to teach secondary math and science.

Launched in March, NMSI addresses the declining number of students who are prepared for and who take rigorous college courses in mathematics and science. NMSI was created in response to the National Academies’ 2005 report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, which said that improving American students’ performance in math and science course work is the most effective way to increase the United States’ global competitiveness. This project was initiated as a partnership of private donors, led by ExxonMobil, which committed $125 million toward the effort.

“The National Academies set forth a clear path for the nation to improve math and science education for our country’s youth and it is now time for us to act,” said Tom Luce, CEO of the National Math and Science Initiative and former assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development at the U.S. Department of Education. “NMSI will broadly implement two proven programs in states across the nation in an effort to support the next generation of innovators.”

More information about how to apply for the two grant programs is available at


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