Research shows

Early struggles spoil college, career readiness

Few students who fall far behind academically in the 4th or 8th grades ever catch up to the levels needed for 12th-grade college and career readiness, according to a new study by the national testing organization ACT, Inc. The challenge is even greater for students who attend high-poverty schools.

Examining the records of students nationwide, the researchers found that only 3 percent of students who scored significantly below college and career readiness benchmarks in 8th-grade math caught up during their four years of high school. The percentage of 8th-graders who caught up by 12th grade was 10 percent for reading and 6 percent for science.

At high-poverty schools — where more than half of students qualified for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program — the same percentage of students caught up in math (3 percent), a smaller percentage of students caught up in reading (6 percent) and there was no difference in science (6 percent).

The statistics were equally sobering for students in earlier grades in math and reading (the only subjects measured). The researchers found that only 10 percent of those who had fallen far behind in 4th-grade math and 9 percent of those in reading were back on track by 8th grade. At high-poverty schools, just 8 percent of 4th-graders caught up by 8th grade in math and 7 percent in reading.

Researchers Chrys Dougherty and Steve Fleming surveyed more than 391,000 students nationwide who took the ACT exams in science, math and reading in the 8th and 12th grades and 36,000 Arkansas students who took the Arkansas Benchmark Exam in the 4th and 8th grades. They said that their findings regarding the older students were conservative because many students who fall far behind drop out of school or never take the ACT exams and therefore were not included in the research.

Dougherty and Fleming suggest that policymakers consider these findings in setting school accountability goals. They point out that the expectations for a school’s ability to make students ready for college and career should reflect the students’ starting points and the number of years that the school has to bring them up to standards.

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