New reports came out last week on the performance of 2017’s high school graduates across the country on the ACT college entrance test. A lot of folks are especially interested in the results for Kentucky because Common Core has been in place in the Bluegrass State longer than anywhere else. Thus, Kentucky has the longest trend line of relevant ACT scores in the country regarding how well Common Core has kept a major, frequently-heard promise (see for example here, here and here) that these standards would improve preparation for college. After all, if we are talking about college readiness, what more pertinent trend lines could there be? The ACT is designed to serve colleges first (not state educators) and the ACT explicitly reports about college readiness.
So, how do Kentucky’s ACT college readiness trends look?
To begin, keep in mind that Kentucky adopted Common Core – sight unseen – in February of 2010. Shortly thereafter, the state implemented Common Core-aligned testing in the 2011-12 school term. Thus, Common Core has been the classroom standard in Kentucky for more than half a decade. The state’s 2017 public high school graduates spent at least six years in classrooms impacted by the Common Core.
Figure 1, derived from data in the 2015 Kentucky Department of Education News Release 15-091 and the department’s 2017 News Release 17-114 shows the percentages of Kentucky’s public school graduates meeting the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education’s (CPE) ACT Benchmark Scores for College Readiness in English, math and reading from 2013 to 2017. Students meting those CPE ACT Benchmark Scores are admitted to credit bearing courses in Kentucky’s public postsecondary system in the related subjects without a requirement to take remedial courses. In other words, those students are deemed ready for college in that subject area, at least according to Kentucky’s educators.
A quick visual examination of Figure 1 shows Kentucky’s students initially made some progress in college readiness based on the ACT in the early years of Common Core. However, the small gains in both English and math actually started decay after 2015. For both English and math, the 2017 CPE Benchmark performances are lower than in 2015 and both are scarcely better than they were in 2013.
Reading appears to have trended somewhat better, but a careful inspection of the graph shows that even in this subject the rate of progress has slowed in more recent years. So, even in reading performance increases have come only very slowly. Worse, even the reading curve is starting to flatten.
For sure, the percentages of students meeting the CPE’s College Readiness Benchmarks in 2017 are disappointingly low in all three areas. When scarcely more than half of the state’s 2017 high school graduates read well enough to attempt college work without extra remedial training, the state obviously has a major problem that doesn’t seem to be improving much in the Common Core era.
When far fewer than one in two Kentucky high school graduates is ready for even the very lowest level credit bearing college math courses, the problem becomes much more severe.
Are the CPE ACT Readiness Benchmarks set too low?
The ACT Benchmark Scores used by the Kentucky CPE in both math and reading are considerably lower than the ACT, Inc.’s own benchmark scores. While the CPE settles for an ACT score of only 19 in math and 20 for reading for credit bearing course entry, the ACT says real college readiness isn’t present until a student scores 22 in both math and reading. That is a big difference on this 36-point test and it has an important impact on the percentages of students that the ACT and the CPE declare college ready.
For example, Figure 1 shows that using the CPE criteria, 51 percent of Kentucky’s public school students were deemed ready to read at the college level. However, the ACT’s own 2017 Profile Report for Kentucky shows that even when we average in scores for higher-performing non-public school students (see this blog for details), only 41 percent of the graduates were ready for college-level demands for reading mastery. That’s a pretty big difference. Using the total number of 2017 graduates of 51,203 in the ACT’s report, that 10-percent error equates to 5,120 students who were declared college ready in reading (i.e. not requiring remedial help in reading) by the CPE when they probably were not really ready. That set up thousands of Kentucky kids for failure.
By the way, there is pretty good evidence that the ACT, not the CPE, might have the better benchmarks. That evidence is found in research released in December 2014 by the Kentucky Office of Education Accountability (OEA). The OEA showed in Figure 3.G in its report that somewhere around 18 to 20 percent of the 2012 Kentucky high school graduates who met the CPE’s ACT Benchmark Scores still wound up with a Grade Point Average below 2.0 in their freshman college year. That indicates one in five Kentucky students probably gets the wrong readiness rating using the CPE’s benchmarks. Unfortunately, the OEA’s report does not examine what would happen if the ACT’s College Readiness Benchmark Scores were used to determine readiness.
Why the graph starts with 2013 data
The ACT changed its reporting standards in 2013, including for the first time in almost all the reported data results from high school graduates who got more than the standard amount of testing time on the ACT. Beginning in 2013, ACT’s reports provide very little separated information regarding how graduates tested only under the standard time limit performed. Comparing current results that include lower-scoring students who got extra time to earlier results that only included students tested under standard time conditions would be problematic.
Where’s the media coverage in Kentucky?
By the way, there is something rather strange going on regarding these new ACT results. In-state news media coverage has been almost non-existent. The dearth of press coverage is unfortunate because the 2017 ACT results show some disturbing trends in college readiness in Kentucky that citizens deserve to see. Can it be that these results, which even the Kentucky Department of Education’s own news release admits are “flat,” and which impact the futures of our students and our state, didn’t merit any coverage?