The vast majority of Ohio high school graduates are not ready for college, according to a new report from ACT. In its class-of-2010 edition of The Condition of College & Career Readiness, the testing company reports that just 28 percent of test-taking Ohio graduates met its college-ready benchmarks in all four tested subject areas. The statistics are even grimmer when you delve into the details.

First, being “college-ready” by ACT’s definition is by no means a guarantee of higher-education success. Rather, it means that a student has a 50 percent chance of earning a B or better and a 75 percent chance of earning a C or higher in entry-level, credit-bearing college classes.  

Second, the college-readiness gap between white and Asian students and their black and Hispanic peers is even more troublesome than the K-12 achievement gap.  For example, based on ACT results, 78 percent of white Ohio graduates are prepared for college English composition coursework and 54 percent for college Algebra, while just 36 and 14 percent of black students are, respectively. Asian-American students are best prepared, with 80 percent ready for college English class and 72 percent for college Algebra.

Third, that 28 percent of college-ready students is based on the test-taking population, which is just two-thirds of last year’s graduating class.  Factor in the unprepared students who didn’t take the test as well as the more than 15 percent of students who never finish high school, and the number of Ohio 18- and 19-year olds who are ready for college is much, much lower.

These numbers might come as a surprise to casual observers of Ohio’s education system.  After all, the governor and state superintendent routinely boast that Ohio has the “most innovative” and “fifth-best” schooling system in the country.  But the findings are surely no surprise to college officials.  This weekend the Columbus Dispatch reported on the gap between high school and college expectations.  In 2008 (the most recent year for which data are available), 39 percent of Ohio’s first-year public college students required a remedial course, despite most high school graduates boasting a final GPA with a B average or higher.  In fact, according to the Ohio Board of Regents, the vast majority of Ohio public high schools see at least one in ten of their graduates (who attended a public college or university) take college remedial classes.  That number soars above 60 percent in dozens of schools.

As to ACT scores themselves, statewide results have slowly inched up – from 21.5 (out of 36) in 2006 to 21.8 in 2010.  The average national score has slipped a bit, from 21.1 in 2006 to 21.0 this year.  (Similarly, performance among high schoolers nationally on the National Assessment of Educational Progress has remained stagnant for more than a decade.)

ACT’s report is not all bad news and offers useful information for policymakers.  The company found that students who took a rigorous “core curriculum” of high school courses are slightly better prepared for college than students who did not (15 percent versus eight percent among Ohio students).  This is good news for the Buckeye State’s class of 2014, because starting with this year’s high-school freshman, all Ohio students must complete the “Ohio Core” curriculum in order to earn a diploma.  But students who are serious about college shouldn’t stop at the Ohio Core.  ACT found that students who took high-level math and science courses above and beyond what is required by the core curriculum were far better prepared for college (in Ohio, 59 percent of students who took such courses were “college-ready,” compared to 15 percent of minimum core-curriculum takers).

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