College Readiness of Arizona High School Juniors

Author: Dr. Paul Perrault, Director of Research & Evaluation

August 25, 2015

The ACT college entrance examination is one of the most important steps that Arizona students can take toward entering postsecondary education.  First, it provides students with individualized information around college and career readiness by subject.  Second, the examination also provides students with an opportunity to think about their career aspirations, consider postsecondary opportunities, and be eligible for need-based financial aid.       

The ACT college exanimation is also an important tool for schools, districts and states to gain insight into the college and career readiness of its student population.  Schools and districts can then use the data to drive changes in instructional practice or to modify their curriculum to improve student achievement.  The state, on the other hand, can measure student performance in comparison to national averages and then use that information to drive educational policy changes. 

For the past seven years, Helios Education Foundation has supported ACT testing in 14 Arizona school districts so that it and its partner districts can have a greater understanding of college readiness for Arizona students.  Recently, Helios Education Foundation contracted with a national research firm, NORC at the University of Chicago, to examine data and provide statewide estimates of mean ACT achievement and college readiness.  College readiness for any one subject (i.e., English, Reading, Mathematics and Science) is based on ACT test score thresholds that have been shown to be predictive of college success in related subjects.[1]   In the report linked to this blog, Dr. Eric Hedberg of NORC examines high school junior ACT college entrance examination data gathered from Helios-supported Arizona school districts over multiple years. 

The Big Picture

At a national level, ACT college entrance examination data reveal that only 26 percent of ACT test takers are ready for college with large gaps between the expected demographic groups.[2]  Not all high school students in the country take the ACT, however, and that 26 percent does not reflect an accurate estimate of all students’ college readiness, which is presumably lower, given that primarily college-bound students take the ACT in most states.  The analysis completed by NORC provides a statistical prediction of what Arizona’s college readiness levels would be, overall and by subject area, if all high school juniors took the ACT.

The ACT college entrance examination has four core subjects, English, Reading, Mathematics and Science, each with an associated threshold for college and career readiness.  In Arizona, NORC’s best estimate for 2013 is that only 10 percent of the state’s high school juniors would have met all four ACT subject-area benchmarks.  The vast majority (59 percent) of Arizona’s juniors would have met no benchmarks. 

This low rate of college readiness is not evenly spread across our population.   About 22 percent of White students in 2013 met all four benchmarks, while only 4 percent of Hispanic/Latino students met all four benchmarks.

The Details 

The ACT college entrance examination composite is scored on a zero to 36 scale.  The average national score for each subject (English, Math, Reading, Science and Composite) for 2013 was approximately a 21.  ACT reports the Arizona average of students tested ranged from about 19-20 for each subject.[3]  The NORC analysis, however, used statistical adjustments to account for the fact that not all students take the ACT, and that the choice and/or opportunity to take the test is not random.   

The NORC analysis’ estimate for the predicted composite ACT score of all Arizona high school juniors is significantly lower than the ACT reported Arizona average for those students who take the exam.  NORC estimated a composite score of 17 for Arizona juniors, with a  four-point gap between Whites and Hispanics on the zero to 32 scale (Whites averaging about 20 and Hispanics averaging about 16).  NORC also predicted statewide high school juniors’ scores by subject.  Looking at English, the estimated state average is about 16, with Whites averaging about 20 and Hispanics averaging about 14.  Reading averages about 18, with Whites averaging about 21 and Hispanics averaging about 16. Math has a state average of about 18, with Whites averaging about 21 and Hispanics averaging about 17.  Finally, the science average for the state is about 17, with Whites again averaging about 20 and Hispanics averaging about 16.  Overall, these results indicate that White students are overrepresented among those who take the ACT in Arizona. When the state’s large and growing Hispanic students are proportionally represented in the NORC analysis’ statewide predicted average scores, the composite and subject-area averages decline, producing more reliable estimates of performance among all high school juniors.

These scores are also reflected in Arizona’s college readiness rates.  In 2013, NORC estimated that about 36 percent of Arizona students were ready for credit-bearing English-related college courses, with 62 percent of Whites ready compared to only 24 percent of Hispanics. .  Mathematics also had low rates of readiness, with 22 percent ready overall (40 percent of Whites and 13 percent of Hispanics).  Readiness for Science was lowest, with only 15 percent of Arizona students ready for credit-bearing science-related college courses (30 percent of Whites and only 8 percent of Hispanics). 

Context and Looking Forward

These results should not be a surprise.  The Arizona Board of Regents’ study of Arizona High School Graduates found that of the 53,392 graduates of the class of 2006, only 12,890 students (24 percent) graduated from a two- or four-year institution within six years of graduation.[4]  If anything, 24 percent graduating from college given a 10 percent college readiness rate only showcases the grit of many of our children to succeed despite entering college not fully prepared. 

Moving forward, Helios Education Foundation is dedicated to improving college and career readiness for all students in Arizona, but especially for those who have been traditionally underserved.  This is why Helios Education Foundation has continued to commit resources to ACT testing through our College Knowing and Going Program for the next four years.  Through this work, we hope to move closer to our vision of preparing every individual in Arizona to succeed in postsecondary education.






Category: College and Career Readiness

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