Catching up is hard to do

NCLB called on public schools to close achievement gaps, and that focus is one thing that’s not likely to change whenever Congress gets around to reauthorizing ESEA. However, a new study by ACT shows how long the odds are for low-achieving 4th and 8th graders to eventually graduate college-ready, which should make us think about how to go about gap closing.

ACT has once again mined its considerable databases to track the progress of students as they moved from 4th to 12th grades in order to find out how many ended up “college ready.”  ACT grouped students by three achievement levels: on track to college-readiness, off track, and far off track. Here’s what they found about 8th graders’ chances:

This table means that only 10 percent of students who were far off track in 8th grade were college ready in reading by 12th grade. The analysts further found that African American and Hispanic 8th graders were twice as likely to be “far off track” than their white classmates.  Similar patterns were evident among 4th graders, too.

If there’s a silver lining in this news, it’s this: “Far off” students who attended the top 10 percent of schools were about three times as likely to become college-ready.  In reading, for example, 28 percent of “far off” 8th graders in the top schools had become college-ready by the time they were seniors compared to the overall average of 10 percent.

This shows us that there are things schools can do to reverse the downward trajectory of low achievement. At the same time, though, it underscores how hard it is to break these trends after 4th grade. As if we still needed another argument for starting early with high-quality pre-k, ACT has surely given us one.  But they also provide evidence for never giving up on kids and their capacity to learn to high levels, even in high school.

A note on methodology: ACT’s college-ready benchmark is the score at which students have a 75 percent chance of earning a C or better and a 50 percent chance of earning a B or better in the relevant college freshman course.   Their database has data for students in a half dozen states who take the ACT series of aligned tests at 4th, 8th and end of high school. You can find their report “Catching up to college and career readiness” — and I encourage you to do so — at

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