Hispanics and other minorities have more ground to make up than their White counterparts if they are to meet the common core academic standards now adopted by more than 40 states and scheduled to be fully implemented in the 2014-15 school year. A new report, released by ACT (American College Testing) Inc., aimed at assisting states as they begin transitioning to the Common Core State Standards, shows that Hispanics and African- Americans are lagging in most college and career-readiness benchmarks.
“These results indicate that we must begin immediately to strengthen teaching and learning in all areas of the common core with particular focus on raising college and career-readiness rates of African-American, Hispanic and other underserved students,” states the report. Titled A First Look at the Common Core and College and Career Readiness, the research report uses ACT data to show where high school students currently stand when measured against the recommended core skills in reading, writing and mathematics. The snapshot presented in the report is not a pretty picture. At this point, only one-third to one-half of the nation’s 11th-graders have the skills deemed necessary to be successful in entry-level jobs or to take college-level courses.
The research also shows that minorities are not performing as well as White students. For example, in understanding fundamental mathematical practices related to making sense of problems and persevering in solving them, only 19 percent of Hispanics and 11 percent of African-Americans meet the standards as opposed to 42 percent of the Caucasian sample.
But officials hope the report will be seen as an opportunity to close the gaps in the next three years, before actual assessment of the standards begins. To this end, the report also provides recommendations for local educators and state and federal policymakers that could help states moving from adoption to implementation of the common standards. Most observers say states have extensive work to do.
“If states are to be successful in raising the expectations for what students should know and be able to do by the end of high school, it is important for them to understand their students’ level of college and career readiness today,” said Cynthia B. Schmeiser, president and COO, Education Division, ACT Inc. “This report is our first attempt to provide states with the best data and information available so they can make informed education policy and practice decisions moving forward.” Schmeiser calls the new core standards one of the most significant educational reforms in recent history.
Because ACT played a role in developing the standards, the company decided to “open the books” and provide as much real data as possible to give states a starting point for realigning curricula and providing teachers with professional development tools to help students succeed.
“We have got to get students through the education pipeline and get them ready for work and college,” said Schmeiser. “This report gives educators a place to start as they face the question: What can we do to get our students ready?”
The report analyzed the test results of more than 250,000 11th-grade students who were administered select forms of the ACT exam relevant to the new standards, as part of states’ 2010 annual testing programs. The students were not self-selected, as is the case for those who take college admissions exams. They also span a range of abilities and college aspirations, are from a variety of communities and schools, and include those tested under standard conditions and accommodations. In essence, say ACT officials, the students in this report are a typical representation of students in high schools around the country.
The report provides data to answer basic questions, including:
• What is the best estimate of current student performance across the various domains, strands and clusters of the Common Core Standards?
• What are students’ overall current strengths and weaknesses on the standards, and how do these data break down among ethnic subgroups that were measured in the sample?
The report’s last section makes recommendations urging state and district leaders to begin targeted instructional strategies to support student learning in four key areas of the Common Core State Standards: text complexity, language and vocabulary acquisition, number and quantity, and mathematical practices.
“The results of this study suggest that far too many of today’s students will graduate from high school unprepared for college-level work or career-training programs without some type of remediation in English-language arts or mathematics,” said Schmeiser.
Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), which has been coordinating the common core initiative, agrees that schools need to develop new strategies. “We can’t reach our goals by doing things the way we have been doing them,” he said “We have got to figure out what needs to be done and redeploy our resources.”
One of the areas the ACT report singles out for attention is students’ ability to read and understand complex text. Relative to the common core, only 31 percent of all students and 18 percent of Hispanics are performing at a college and careerready level in understanding complex text. This is especially true in science, where an even lower percentage of all students, 24 percent, are able to read, write or communicate in the language of scientific disciplines.
“We aren’t just talking about print textbooks,” said Wilhoit. “We need students to be able to work with information in all kinds of media and in different formats, such as maps, diagrams and other primary sources.”
The ACT report suggests that more emphasis must be placed on language and vocabulary development. Specifically, recommendations call for measures to ensure students are reading progressively more complex texts as they advance through grades. And, as the core standards state, students need to develop sufficient literacy skills, including vocabulary that is common to history, science and technical subjects. To do this, teachers must use their own subject-area expertise to help students learn to communicate effectively in these fields. In other words, there is a shared responsibility for students’ literacy development. “Teaching the English language is not just the domain of English teachers,” said Scott Montgomery, ACT assistant vice president, who has been involved in the project.
When it comes to mathematics, the results indicate more intensive work must be done in mastering the foundations of mathematics. Only 34 percent of students performed competently in the category of number and quantity, which are the skills used to understand the meaning of numbers, operations, and arithmetic expression and to use that understanding to solve problems and reason about mathematics. For Hispanic and African- American students, 16 percent and 10 percent performed competently compared to 42 percent of their White counterparts.
“Students need more work with ‘hands-on’ mathematics,” said Wilhoit. “They need to develop that foundation in the early grades so they can go on to more complex mathematical processes.”
Given the weaknesses identified in the report, the authors offer several courses of action to help classroom teachers, educational administrators and policymakers who want to use the next three years to improve student performance.
“The period between Common Core adoption and Common Core implementation offers an important opportunity to evaluate and reframe education policy and practice at all levels,” states the report.
Perhaps the most important recommendations involve the front lines, which are the teachers who will have primary responsibility for moving students to the performance levels outlined in the core standards.
The report strongly encourages districts to provide teachers with the support and curricular tools that will help them meet these challenges. However, with funding for education stagnating and even declining in some states, it won’t be easy. “I do not foresee more resources coming from state and federal government,” said Wilhoit. “This means we have to come up with strategies and tools that might not exist yet.”
The report suggests teachers will have to have access to model lessons and instructional units aligned to the standards. But it does not mean telling them how to teach, said Wilhoit.
“Although setting standards for what students need to know is perfectly appropriate, we have to give teachers flexibility and creativity in the classroom,” he said.
Looking beyond the classroom, the report encourages states to get ready for the shift to standards and prepare for the changes that will occur over the next few years. This means embracing the challenge of “clearer, higher standards,” helping communities understand them, and improving accountability systems. All of this needs to be done with an eye toward reframing what students and schools are expected to accomplish, especially since states currently set and define their own proficiency levels. “This is a baseline study that raises some important issues for policy-makers at the state level,” said Wilhoit.
Some worry that rather than step up to the challenge, states will be tempted to undercut the new standards. If the current gaps in core mandates and student performance are left unaddressed, states and districts might be encouraged to adopt weaker definitions of college and career readiness, says the report.
Instead, both Wilhoit and Schmeiser say states need to act by getting “a leg up” and moving forward before the common assessment begins in the 2014-15 school year. And even though ACT says its findings are instructive, they caution that the analysis only measures student readiness before any attempt has been made to teach to the new standards. That is precisely why officials believe the study is a good place to start. “We feel the states can help these students now,” said Wilhoit.
Still, there are those skeptics who say the new standards and subsequent assessment will be a “bonanza” for testing companies such as ACT, which played a critical role in development of the common core.
But Schmeiser says ACT actions were based on what it felt was a responsibility to share in the process of creating the standards and to provide information that would shed light on current achievement gaps. ACT has released related reports, such as Mind the Gaps: How College Readiness Narrows Achievement Gaps in College Success, which concludes that underrepresented minority and lower-income students will be better prepared for postsecondary success through a rigorous high school curriculum and better educational and career planning. Schmeiser says these types of studies can be a factor in reducing inequities by identifying critical steps that will maximize success for all students.
“The bottom line is that we believe that one of the roles of our organization is to provide data to help the schools,” she said. “We are sharing the data and the research that states can use in the next three years to begin reforms to help students perform better.”