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Academic Preparedness of Low-Income Students

Posted on 05/04/2016


Low-income students score significantly below national averages on meeting college readiness benchmarks, according to ACT’s recent report, The Condition of College & Career Readiness 2015: Students from Low-Income Families External link opens in new window or tab. Equally disturbing is the fact that this pattern of underachievement is persistent. For the sixth consecutive year, low-income students performed well below the national averages.

This report considers the academic preparation and postsecondary aspirations of ACT-taking 2015 high school graduates with reported family earnings of less than $36,000 as compared with all ACT test takers. About 25 percent of the 1.9 million ACT-tested high school graduates fell into the low-income category. In general, the study found that most ACT test takers are not ready for success in college, but low-income students display far less readiness. These academic gaps between low-income students and more affluent students emerge early in life and persist, and they have major consequences for future college readiness. ACT research found that “the level of academic achievement that students attain by 8th grade has a larger impact on their college and career readiness by the time they graduate from high school than anything that happens academically in high school.” Wise choices about schooling, however, can help mitigate the socioeconomic backgrounds of students. Low-income students who take a core high school curriculum are more likely to be college-ready than those low-income students who take less-challenging curricula. “Taking the right high school courses is a decision that has profound consequences, yet we aren’t seeing enough low-income students enroll” in these demanding courses, the report found. Additionally, students, notwithstanding the incomes of their families, show more persistence in college if they have demonstrated higher degrees of academic discipline, commitment to college, and social connections. Even though the relationship between college success and noncognitive skills needs to be better understood, there is evidence that there “are core noncognitive skills that are strongly correlated with college success.” These skills need to be “developed and nurtured over time.”

The report also found that

  • Half of the students from low-income families did not meet any of the four ACT College Readiness Benchmarks—a much higher percentage than the 31 percent of all ACT test takers who met no benchmarks;
  • 20 percent of poorer students succeeded in meeting three or four ACT benchmarks, whereas 40 percent of all ACT test takers achieved three or four benchmarks. Over the past five years, neither the poorer students nor ACT test takers as a whole have increased their percentages reaching this standard; and
  • The rich/poor divide is correlated with large differences in college readiness. The proportion of students reaching each of the four ACT benchmarks—English, reading, mathematics, and science— was between 38 and 43 percentage points lower for students from low-income families than for students from families with annual incomes of $100,000 or more.

The report concludes with a “call to action” for the development of policies and practices that provide a “tightly integrated approach to addressing postsecondary access, readiness, and success that spans the entire education continuum.”

Source: OCTAE Connection External link opens in new window or tab, Issue 246, March 11, 2016