Students who are not on track for college and career readiness by eighth grade are unlikely to attain the level of preparedness by high school graduation.
Compiled by ACT Inc., the Forgotten Middle report's findings suggest that the level of academic achievement students attain by eighth grade has a more significant impact on whether the youth are ready for college and career by the time they graduate than any single factor examined by the organization's researchers.
The factors examined by researchers included courses taken by the students, grades earned in high school and demographic characteristics such as gender, race and household income.
"Eighth grade is a critical defining point for students in the college and career planning process," indicated Cynthia Schmeiser, president and chief operating officer of ACT's education division. "If students are not on target for college and career readiness by the time they reach this point, the impact may be nearly irreversible."
The research report findings suggest that few United States eighth graders are currently on target to be ready for college level work by the time they graduate from high school.
Only 16 percent of the recent high school graduates studied in ACT's research had met or surpassed the organization's college readiness benchmarks in all four subject areas - English, math, reading and science - on the eighth grade assessment of academic skills.
Students who meet the benchmarks are on target to be college ready by the time they graduate from high school.
College readiness in students is defined by the ACT having the likelihood of earning a C grade or better in first year college courses in the four designated subject areas.
Conversely, the organization's recently released research report suggests that being on target for college and career readiness by the eighth grade puts students on a trajectory for success in high school and beyond.
The ACT researchers studied three groups of eighth graders - students who were on target, students who barely missed being on target and students who were more substantially off target.
The results indicate that students who were on target in eighth grade were ready for college and career by their junior or senior year of high school, noted the ACT representatives.
"The implications of this research are clear," pointed out Schmeiser. "If we want to improve college readiness among U.S. high school graduates, we need to intervene before students reach high school, in upper elementary and middle school. The findings impact not only how we prepare students leading up to high school but in what strategic ways we intervene with those who are behind academically in high school. Both elements are critical for ensuring that our high school grads are ready for college and career. Our students deserve it, and our nation demands it."
The need to build the foundation for college and career readiness before high school is a topic that has, at times, been overshadowed on a crowded education reform agenda, indicated the ACT representatives.Â
One notable recent focus on reform has been in U.S. president-elect Barack Obama's education plan, pointed out ACT representatives.
The plan places significant emphasis on improving high school achievement and graduation rates by reforming education in the upper elementary and middle school grades.
Obama's plan would also require states to develop early warning systems that identify at-risk students in grades five through eight and provide interventions that help the students succeed, continued the organization's representatives.
The latest ACT research report suggests that the impact of the problem extends beyond college preparation to the American workforce and the national economy.
"The skills necessary for entry into the majority of the fastest growing jobs that require a high school diploma and offer a livable wage are comparable to those needed for success in first-year college courses," pointed out Schmeiser. "In the context of our current economic challenges, we should be targeting eighth grade readiness as a key benchmark for our nation's ability to produce a workforce that is ready to succeed and compete in the global economy. The findings suggest we have a long way to go to ensure that outcome."
ACT's nationwide longitudinal research study followed approximately 216,000 students in the U.S. graduating classes of 2005 and 2006 from eighth grade through high school graduation, explained the organization.
All of the students had taken three curriculum-based assessments in the organization's college readiness system.
The assessments included EXPLORE for eighth-graders, PLAN for 10th graders and the ACT college admission and placement exam.
The findings indicate that eighth grade academic achievement provides a better predictor of eventual college and career readiness than any other single factor studied by the ACT researchers.
Along with eighth grade academic achievement, the factors studied by the researchers included the students' background characteristics, courses taken in high school, grades earned in high school and the testing behaviors of the youth.
Schmeiser pointed out that high school-level interventions such as taking more rigorous courses, studying harder, and earning higher grades in high school can help to improve students' level of readiness by the time they graduate.
"Students who aren't on track for readiness by eighth grade will have a very difficult time making up all of the ground they have lost. Without sufficient preparation prior to high school, students can't maximize the benefits of academic enhancements while they are there," cautioned the ACT representative.
In addition, the organization's research study found that improving certain behaviors of middle school students can help increase their readiness for college and career by the time they graduate.
Two academic behaviors were found to have the greatest impact on eighth grade course failure and ninth grade grade point average.
The behaviors included academic discipline like good work and study habits along with orderly conduct like acting appropriately in classrooms.
ACT's report lays out the specific knowledge and skills in English, math, reading and science that students must attain by the end of eighth grade in order to be on target for college and career success.
The research report also offers several recommendations to educators and policy makers on how to improve college and career readiness among high school graduates.
The ACT recommendations included:
â¢Focusing on kindergarten through eighth grade standards on the knowledge and skills that are essential for college and career readiness. Making the standards non-negotiable for all students.
â¢Monitoring student progress toward college and career readiness beginning in upper elementary school and continuing through middle school.
â¢Intervening with students who are not on target.
â¢Improving students' academic behaviors like completing homework, complying with attendance guidelines and mastering the aspects of academic discipline.
â¢Increasing federal and state support for schools to implement intervention programs that help all students prepare to become ready for college and careers.