In a weather satellite’s view of how well our K-12 school system is really working, the ACT released its annual report last month. The report uses the Iowa-based testing company’s exam results to measure the percentage of kids who are prepared, partially prepared or unprepared for college.
And the forecast is not so great, especially if you are poor or your parents don’t have a college degree.
On the bright side, there’s a widespread public understanding even among very poor families that a college degree contributes to rising social mobility. A whopping 96 percent of low-income kids who take the test say they plan to go to college. It’s kind of heartwarming to think of all those seventeen-year-olds living in hardscrabble neighborhoods dreaming of a better life and seeing some sort of post-secondary education as the escalator that might take them there.
But this report drives home a sad fact. Those kids may want college. But they are not likely to succeed there. And the reason is this: their K-12 education has not prepared them to do college level work: 435,000 of the 1,800,000 or so students who took the exam last year come from families with an annual income of less than $36,000 a year.
Of those test takers, 11 percent met all four ACT benchmarks (meaning that they were likely to earn at least a C in English, reading, math and science) compared with 26 percent of test takers as a whole. And here’s the fact that hits you like an arrow to the heart: Half of all low-income test-takers failed to meet a single benchmark.
Now that link between college and social mobility doesn’t seem so rosy, right. Because it’s a hard lesson to learn when you are 17 that while you may earnestly want to improve the economic circumstances of your life, you haven’t been given the basic tools you’ll need to do it. Your chances to earn an income that is going to help you and your family better yourselves are evaporating before you can legally order a drink or even drive at night. As the report details, it’s hard to reflect college readiness unless you have been offered and succeeded in a college-preparatory curriculum. And most low-income kids aren’t and don’t.
It would seem, given this data, that we’d want to do a whole lot more to make sure more kids, especially poor kids, stay on the college track. And that means taking four year of English class and three years of social studies, laboratory science and a math sequence culminating in Algebra 2. It should be made very clear to district leaders that high schools in low-income neighborhoods that do not offer students real live laboratories in which to learn laboratory science are unacceptable. And it should be made very clear to parents, especially in low-income communities, that when their fourth grade slips behind grade level in math, it’s not a case on “not being good at math.” At 9 years old, that child is being steered toward a high school course sequence that is not likely to end with them ready for college.
On a policy level, we might take some of the energy that we expend around education reform away from how schools are being managed and focus on how, as a nation, what sequence of knowledge and what educational practices in the classroom can improve their outcomes and help these vulnerable and heartbreakingly hopeful kids stay on track for higher education.
Peg Tyre is a longtime education reporter and director of strategy for the Edwin Gould Foundation, which invests in organizations that get low-income students to and through college. She is the author of The Trouble With Boys and The Good School: How Smart Parents Get Their Kids the Education They Deserve.