Intent to pursue postsecondary education can be gauged by participation in the ACT exam, a national college entrance exam. In 2015, 67 percent of seniors in Iowa took the ACT.1 Iowa students taking the ACT who identified as white dropped from 86 percent in 2011 to 80 percent in 2015, while Hispanic test takers increased from 4 percent to 6 percent. Black (3 percent), American Indian/Alaska Native (<1 percent), Asian (3 percent) and Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander (<1 percent) participation remained constant.2
While minority participation in the ACT is increasing, there is a discrepancy between Asian and white students compared to black and Hispanic students regarding college readiness. College readiness refers to a student’s ability to enroll and succeed in college courses without need for remedial education.3 Readiness can be predicted by a student’s performance on the ACT English, Math, Reading and Science tests. Students meeting a given subject test benchmark have a 50 percent chance of earning a grade of B or higher in a college course corresponding to that subject.4 About a third of Asian and white students met all four ACT benchmarks, compared to 16 percent of Hispanic and 10 percent of black students. Of Iowa students who took the ACT, 33 percent met the benchmark in all four subjects, while 20 percent met none.2
While 67 percent of Iowa students take the ACT, the Iowa Assessments are required for all Iowa students in grades 3–8 and 11. Therefore, Iowa Assessments National Scale Scores (NSS) in math and reading have been mapped to the ACT college readiness benchmarks to determine college readiness scores for grades 5–11.5 Meeting these scores each year indicates a student is on track for college readiness. According to the NSS benchmarks, 39 percent of Iowa students in grades 5–11 are on track for postsecondary success.These college readiness benchmarks are higher than the proficiency scores on the Iowa Assessments. Twice as many students (79 percent) are currently proficient in math and reading, revealing a vast gap between the number of students who are proficient and those who are prepared to succeed in postsecondary education.6
ACT recommends making core curriculum a priority to increase the number of students who are college-ready. Both ACT and the Iowa Department of Education identify core curriculum as four or more years of English and three or more years of math, social studies and natural science. A fourth year of math improves likelihood of student success, as long as the curriculum is rigorous.7 The average ACT 2015 Composite score for Iowans taking “Core or More” was 23 compared to 20 for those taking less than core. Core education might contribute to the observed gap in ACT performance between white and minority students. For example, 82 percent of white students were identified as taking core curriculum, while 73 percent of Hispanic and 61 percent of black students took core.2
In addition to the performance gap by race and ethnicity, ACT has identified a gap between students with lower family income (<$36,000 per year) and higher family income which is “substantial and persistent.”8 The percentage of students in the highest income bracket meeting three or more benchmarks is three times higher than those in the lowest income bracket. On the Iowa Assessments, 17 percent of students receiving free or reduced priced lunches (FRPL) met the college and career readiness benchmark on the reading exam, compared to 39 percent for non-FRPL students. On the math test there was a 30 percent difference between the two groups of students.9
In 2015, 13 states had 100 percent participation in the ACT exam. These states required all juniors in high school to take the test, paid the exam fee and conducted the exam during the school day. These steps increase college entrance exam accessibility for low-income students who might not be able to afford the exam fee or might work on weekends, when the test is typically administered. Michigan, one of those 13 states, found that the number of low-income students who scored college-ready on the ACT exam increased by 50 percent and the number of low-income students enrolling at a four-year institution increased by 6 percent.10
Additional indicators of college readiness start in middle school, or even earlier, and include absenteeism, grades and participation in a rigorous sequence of math courses.11 Using several college readiness indicators, the Education Commission of the States (ECS) developed a “Blueprint for College Readiness” and identified 10 ways states can increase college readiness.12 ECS highlighted areas in which Iowa high schools could improve, including:
• Use College Readiness as a metric to determine performance in school
• Align statewide high school graduation course requirements with statewide college admissions course requirements
1) The ACT. (2015). ACT Condition of College and Career Readiness Report 2015 – Iowa.
2) The ACT. (2015). ACT Profile Report Graduating Class of 2015 – Iowa.
3) Conley, David, T. (2007). Redefining College Readiness, Volume 3. Education Policy Improvement Center.
4) The ACT. (2015). Using Your ACT Results.
5) Welch, C. & Dunbar, S. (2011). K-12 Assessments and College Readiness: Necessary Validity Evidence for Educators, Teachers and Parents.
6) Iowa Department of Education. (June 7, 2016). Iowa School Report Card.
7) Benken, B.M., Ramierz, J., Li, X. and Wettendorf, S. (2015). Developmental Mathematics Success: Impact of Students’ Knowledge and Attitudes. Journal of Developmental Education.
8) The ACT. (2015). The Condition of College & Career Readiness 2015- Students from Low-Income Families.
9) Iowa Assessments. Profile Report: College Readiness, Iowa Graduating Class 2015.
10) Hyman, Joshua. (2014). ACT for All: The Effect of Mandatory College Entrance Exams on Postsecondary Attainment and Choice.
11) Hein, V., Smerdon, B., & Sambolt, M. (2013). Predictors of Postsecondary Success. American Institutes for Research.
12) Glancy, E., Fulton, M., Anderson, L., Zinth, J.D., Millard, M. & Delander, B. (2014). Blueprint for College Readiness. Education Commission of the States.