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Three of four state grads not ready for college, ACT scores show

| SUN-TIMES FILE

| SUN-TIMES FILE

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Updated: November 3, 2011 9:31AM



More than three-quarters of Illinois high school graduates aren’t completely ready for college, based on their ACT scores, state results of the college-admission test released Wednesday show.

Only 23 percent of Illinois’ 2011 high school graduating class — public and private — met college readiness standards in all four ACT subjects tested: English, reading, math and science.

The biggest drag on preparedness, data showed, was college-readiness in science. There, only 28 percent of the 2011 Illinois graduating class scored high enough to predict they will probably land a C or better in the typical college freshmen science course in biology, the ACT report indicated.

Among the state’s African-American students, only 6 percent met that same college-ready science bar.

For Illinois, the science results are frustrating but also a call to action, said Gabrielle Lyon, founder of Project Exploration, a program that brings out-of-school science to Chicago public school students in grades six to 12.

Two national laboratories — Fermi and Argonne — lie within 40 miles of Chicago, Lyon noted. The six-county area is home to Baxter, Abbott and Bell laboratories.

“This is a science-rich environment with no shortage of really great things going on,’’ Lyon said. “Illinois has what it takes to turn those scores around. Professional scientists of every stripe — we have to bridge that gap.’’

Among the good news in the report was that Illinois’ overall composite score on the 36-point ACT rose to 20.9 in 2011, up from 20.7 the year before.

And although Illinois is one of only four states that require all public high school students to take the ACT, its composite is not that far from the national average of 21.1, noted Mary Fergus, spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education.

Plus, Illinois’ average ACT score of 20.9 beat that of the three other states that mandate the ACT — Colorado (20.7), Michigan (20.0) and Kentucky (19.6).

ACT developed its readiness benchmarks by looking at the grades students racked up in their first-year college courses in English, social studies, algebra and biology, and then “back-mapping” those grades to the scores those same students posted in high school on the ACT, said ACT spokesman Ed Colby.

To eventually earn at least a C in a typical college freshmen biology class, ACT predicts, high school students need at least a 24 on the ACT science subtest — the highest of all the benchmark levels. Other college readiness benchmarks are: a 22 in ACT math to be ready for college algebra; a 21 in ACT reading to be prepared for college social science, and an 18 in ACT English to be prepared for a college English composition class.

Several experts blamed Illinois’ poor science showing on the increased marginalization science has seen in schools worried about facing No Child Left Behind sanctions tied to reading and math results.

“I work with [Chicago public] elementary schools where teachers will tell you very explicitly that they are told not to spend time in science,’’ said Northwestern University professor Steven McGee, who oversees a Northwestern program offering a new “teacher leadership’’ credential in science.

“Some schools do a rotating schedule, where they spend five weeks on science and five weeks on social studies. But they have math and reading every day.’’

And, McGee noted, in elementary school, Illinois only tests fourth and seventh graders in science, while reading and math are tested in every grade, third through eighth.

“If you wait until high school to focus on [science], your kids are already way behind,’’ McGee said.

Science can be an especially challenging subject, Project Exploration’s Lyon said, because science taps reading, writing and math skills. As a result, “the gaps you see in science are a magnified version of what’s happening in education generally,’’ Lyon said.

“Illinois doesn’t have a great record of investing in education, and the results in science magnify that.’’



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