But it’s more complicated than the panicky headlines suggest. As the Tribune article notes: "Students are considered college-ready if they score at least an 18 in English, 22 in math, 21 in reading and 24 in science." What does that mean? According to the ACT (PDF; emphasis mine):
Students who meet a Benchmark on the ACT or COMPASS have approximately a 50 percent chance of earning a B or better and approximately a 75 percent chance of earning a C or better in the corresponding college course or courses.
As described above, the Benchmarks represent a summary across many colleges and many students. The standards for each individual college may vary depending on the material covered in the course and the grading practices within that course. Therefore, the Benchmarks represent a criterion for success for a typical student at a typical college. As such, they give students, parents, and counselors useful guidelines to whether a student has mastered the necessary skills to have a reasonable chance of success in college.
It’s a pretty interesting approach, but it’s a relatively high bar: predicting, basically, if a student would likely do reasonably well in average freshman classes in four different subjects at an average college. If you set the bar lower, for comparison, Illinois’s ACT scores aren’t as troubling as "three out of four not ready for college" would suggest.
For instance, the composite score for all Illinois high school graduates—all of them have to take it, and Illinois is one of the few states for which this is true, and as a result Illinoisians make up nine percent of all ACT-takers—is 20.9. Which, for the record, is better than any other state in which at least 90 percent of graduates take the exam.
20.9 is substantially lower than the 25th percentile for 2010 admitted freshmen at the University of Illinois… but that same percentile, at the U of I, starts in the top quarter of high school classes and goes up from there, depending on the school.
For UIC, 20.9 is within the 25th percentile for the College of Education, and just shy of it in three more of the colleges. It’s just shy of the NIU average. It’s right in the middle for SIU, above average for Indiana State, and average for Eastern Illinois.
Whether or not that’s good or bad is another question altogether, but "college-ready" is a squishy concept. "If all Illinois high school graduates went to college, three-quarters would be unlikely to make it through freshman year without a D, depending on what college they go to" is a bit more to the point.
Photograph: Justin_D_Miller (CC by 2.0)