- The Washington Times - Friday, August 22, 2003

Twenty years ago, the Reagan administration’s blue-ribbon panel — the National Commission on Excellence in Education — issued its landmark “A Nation at Risk” report decrying the state of public education in America. At the top of the commission’s reform agenda was the strong recommendation to require high school students to pursue a rigorous curriculum in math, the natural sciences, English, social studies, foreign languages and computer science. Across the nation, legislatures passed education-reform bills that ostensibly strengthened high school curricula, especially in math and the natural sciences. Yet, the results of the 2003 ACT college entrance exams reveal how poorly the nation’s public schools have prepared students for college-level math and biology courses.

Based on college-readiness benchmarks established by ACT, the testing service concluded that “many graduates have not mastered the skills they need to be ready for first-year science and math courses that count toward a college degree.”

Specifically, in tests on which the maximum score is 36, the ACT established “college readiness benchmark” scores of 24 for the science exam and 22 for the math test. Students who attained those scores would have a high probability of completing college biology and algebra courses with a grade of C or higher. Among the record 1.2 million students who took the ACT exams this year, only 26 percent reached the science test’s benchmark and only four in 10 scored at or above the math test’s benchmark.

Not surprisingly, ACT research revealed that there is a massive disconnect among high school seniors between their intended career paths and their high school preparation. Nearly two out of 10 students professed a desire to pursue a health-sciences college major, including medicine, nursing, dentistry, optometry and pharmacy. That was the top choice. Other top 10 career choices included business, engineering, biological and physcial sciences, social sciences and computer science — all of which usually require students to take advanced math and/or science courses in college, ACT reports.

To prepare for such collegiate coursework, ACT research has found, high school students should take at least three years of science, including physics, and four years of math. However, fewer than 45 percent of graduating seniors took three years of science, making the majority unprepared for college biology. Worse, only 39 percent took four years of math, meaning that three out of five high school graduates were unprepared for a college algebra course.

With such shabby college preparation 20 years after “A Nation at Risk” alerted America to the shortcomings of its public education system, it is understandable that: as many as 50 percent or more of college freshmen must take at least one remedial course; one-quarter of freshmen at four-year schools fail to return for their sophomore years; and only half of college students graduate within five years. What we do not understand is why Americans continue to passively accept such rotten public schooling.

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