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ACT tests show only 22% ready for college

American high school students are no better prepared for college than they were 10 years ago, according to a new study by ACT, one of the two big organizations that offer college entrance tests.

ACT said that of the 1.2 million students throughout the country who took its tests this year, only 22 percent were ready for college-level work in English, mathematics and science. An additional 19 percent were prepared in two of the three areas, and could succeed in the third area "by doing just a little bit more," the study found.

"We've made virtually no progress in the last 10 years" helping students to become ready for college or jobs, the report said. "And from everything we've seen, it's not going to get better any time soon."

At a time when education experts and policy-makers are trying to gauge what progress has been made and what needs to be done next, the report offers one of the most negative assessments so far.

Another report, "Measuring Up 2004: The National Report Card on Higher Education," released last month by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education in California, was more optimistic about college preparation, saying that in many states, more students were taking more college-preparatory courses than a decade earlier.

But ACT, which looked at the college-readiness issue in greater depth, concluded that the increases had not been enough. It found that the proportion of students taking what it deemed a minimum core of college preparatory courses — four years of English and three years each of mathematics, science and social studies — had risen only slightly in 10 years: to 56 percent in 2004, from 54 percent in 1994.

Another problem, the study said, is that even those who took the full core curriculum were not necessarily prepared for college, since some of their courses were not rigorous enough.

Of the students who took no mathematics beyond algebra I and II and geometry, only 13 percent were ready to handle college algebra. Of those who added trigonometry, only 37 percent were prepared. That figure jumped to 74 percent for those who also took calculus. But only 40 percent of students took trigonometry or another advanced mathematics course beyond algebra and geometry.

The ACT researchers said that their study had led them "to rethink whether the core curriculum" adequately prepared students "for success after high school."

The report said that students who took a minimum core curriculum of four years of English and three years each of mathematics, science and social studies were more likely to be prepared for college-level work than those who did not. Students who took advanced courses beyond that minimum core fared even better.

ACT, which is based in Iowa, defined college readiness as the ability to succeed in a credit-bearing course at a two-year or four-year college without needing to take a remedial course first.