Does the ACT really tell you if you're ready for college?
More than 64 percent of Larkin High School's Class of 2012 was enrolled in college 16 months after graduation, but more than half those students might not be academically ready to succeed there.
According to new data released for the first time last month through the Illinois State Report Cards, Larkin's 2012 graduating class had a significant "college readiness" gap.
While 64.4 percent of the class was in college as of September 2013, only 31.7 percent of them received at least a 21 composite score on the ACT test they took in high school -- the benchmark of college readiness on the state report cards.
The Elgin high school is a microcosm of the state of Illinois, where 70.4 percent of all 2012 high school graduates were enrolled in college 16 months after graduation, but only 45.8 percent tested ready to be there.
The implications of the numbers are obvious -- that a significant number of students spending time and huge sums of money to be in college are not academically prepared to be there. But, educators say the numbers don't tell the whole story.
At many suburban high schools, where most students are groomed for college, educators are debating whether the numbers mean schools are sending too many unprepared students to college, or if the state's time-honored measure of college readiness is just plain wrong.
Not the only factor
The gap between college enrollment and college readiness is leading many to say ACT scores alone aren't adequate predictors of college success.
Although there is a dearth of good data, educators say they know anecdotally that some students who tank the ACT still perform well in college.
"I know people who have successfully completed college and got a 13 on the ACT, and I know of people who got a 30 on the ACT but dropped out," said Larkin Principal Jon Tuin.
Lisa Small, associate superintendent for instruction at Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211, said the ACT is an indicator of how well-prepared students are for college, but it isn't the only factor.
"It's never good practice just to look at one indicator, especially when talking about a student's future," she said.
College enrollment numbers -- in 12-month and 16-month increments after graduation -- were shown on school report cards for the first time this year. The information came through the National Student Clearinghouse, said Amanda Simhauser, spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education.
Simhauser acknowledges the enrollment numbers are self-reported, so they aren't 100 percent reliable. It also will be several more years before enough data is collected to see how many students make it to college graduation.
Few high schools track their own graduates because of the cost. One that has is Maine Township High School District 207, where officials say their results refute ACT's contention that a student who does not "pass" all four sections of the ACT test -- English, math, reading and science -- is not ready for college.
Of the District 207 students who graduated between 2003 and 2009 and met only three of the four ACT benchmarks, 60 percent went on to earn a college degree, said Don Marzolf, District 207 director of assessment.
"This is a manufactured crisis, manufactured largely by ACT itself," said Dave Beery, spokesman for District 207. "ACT's own data undermines their position on this, and, similarly, our numbers show that ACT's so-called benchmarks for college readiness do not translate into our students' actual experience once they attend college.
"The measures that ACT uses -- and ISBE uses by extension -- do not sufficiently measure college readiness."
Some colleges are beginning to agree. DePaul University in Chicago is among several schools that now make submitting standardized test scores from the ACT or SAT an optional part of the college admissions process, basing entrance instead on high school course work as a better predictor of college success.
According to results of a three-year national study released by the National Association for College Admissions Counseling earlier this year, there is only a "trivial" difference in college graduation rates and cumulative grade-point averages between students who submit standardized test scores and those who do not.
However, studies from ACT say that the ACT composite score, along with high school GPA, provides greater accuracy of predictions for how students will do their first year at college.
Meanwhile, Illinois is getting ready to shift all students to the PARCC -- Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers -- next year, which could completely change the benchmarks for college readiness.
Readiness an attitude
At Round Lake High School, where the student body is 71.3 percent low income and 70.5 percent Hispanic, educators say they can't afford to believe that college readiness is determined by the ACT score alone. Only 25 percent of Round Lake's 2012 graduates scored a 21 or higher on the ACT, while 56.6 percent were in college 16 months after graduation.
"We encourage our kids in a number of ways to dream big, to continue to push toward the goal of attending college regardless of whether they hit that 21 or not," said Principal Donn Mendoza.
The Lake County school starts instilling that attitude early on, with a freshman academy that focuses on the most at-risk students, social and emotional interventions, curriculum changes and more college and career counselors than in years past, said Susan Center, assistant principal.
"We want to inspire our kids. You cannot underestimate the power of perseverance, passion and hard work," Mendoza said. "Hard work is the equalizer. We want to provide a mindset for our kids that they can achieve their dreams whatever they may be."
"College and career readiness are the same thing in today's workforce," Center said. "The levels of math and reading needed to be successful are the same."
That's why Round Lake makes individual five-year plans for every student that go beyond high school graduation and focus on how each student will transition and achieve their college or career goals, she said.
At Larkin, 74 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch and just 19 percent of the student body is white, factors Tuin says play into stereotypes of who can go to college.
"A lot of times people from the outside say our kids aren't college-ready," he said.
To challenge that assumption among the students themselves, Larkin organizes a college trip every spring for 40 to 50 students whose parents didn't go to college and who may not be considering it.
Over a long weekend they visit large universities, like Michigan State, Notre Dame, and the University of Iowa, and smaller liberal arts schools. This year they will visit California.
"It's an amazing experience," Tuin said. "You can see how absolutely foreign this environment looks to them, but you can see them learning and starting to think that they really can go to college and be successful there."
Tuin said Larkin students have applied to the colleges they visited.
"They never would have done that if they didn't see it, feel it, touch it," he said.
Preparing to succeed
As educators try to focus less on numbers and more on success stories, many agree there is a very real concern about setting students up to fail.
"Not all of our students are leaving high school adequately prepared to go onto college," said Simhauser of the ISBE. "Some might go and last a year or two, but we know that not all of our students who go to college get their degrees."
The state board doesn't track yet how many students make it through college, but Simhauser said they hope to collect that data through the national clearinghouse in the next few years.
"It doesn't do any good for our kids to end up going to college and not finish," Mendoza agrees. "It is a reflection of how well we've prepared them to make it after they leave."
There are many reasons outside of academic readiness why some students drop out of college, including family issues and a lack of finances. Mendoza, meanwhile, believes high schools need to focus on the postsecondary factors that they can control.
"We have to make sure they have the foundational skills, work ethic and study habits to be successful," he said.
Actively intervening with students and pushing them to take challenging classes in high school is one way, said District 211's Small.
"High school can hold a student's hand compared to in college when they are on their own," she said. "If they take a challenging course while we are there for them, they can gain confidence before they leave high school. There are so many more eyes watching kids in high school than in college, and we want to get them ready to be on their own."
Challenging coursework has also been a focus at Glenbard East, where 72.5 percent of students enroll in college, but only 40.4 percent are deemed college-ready.
"I wouldn't say the other students are not college-ready," said Jeff Feucht, Glenbard High School District 87's assistant superintendent for educational services.
In the last three years, the percent of Glenbard East students enrolled in physics or another high-level science class by the 11th grade has increased from 28 percent to 69 percent, Fuecht said.
Larkin, meanwhile, is tailoring a national program called AVID -- Advancement Via Individual Determination -- to its own needs to get more students college-ready, Principal Tuin said.
Nearly a quarter of all Larkin students are enrolled in AVID, with a curriculum focused on reading, writing, organization, inquiry and collaboration. The school hopes to increase enrollment to one-third of all students in the next few years.
While college-readiness numbers such as those published on the school report cards help a school know where its students stand, educators said there is much more that goes into the equation for individual students.
"I don't think we'll ever move away from looking at numbers, but it's important to look at the students behind the numbers," Tuin said. "We are never going to say, 'You got a 15, college is not in your future.' We can't tell them based on one test what is in the crystal ball for their future."