Getting Low-Income Kids Ready for College Means Skipping the Test Prep Status Quo

The creator of the ACT offers free online study courses and practice exams, but most students from underserved backgrounds aren’t scoring higher.
(Photo: Hill Street Studios/Getty Images)
Feb 12, 2016· 2 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

In 2015, a record number of low-income students took the ACT to measure their readiness for college, evidence that the message about higher education and prosperity—repeated by everyone from rapper Big Sean to President Obama—has been heard, loud and clear.

Yet according to a new report, there’s a dark cloud around that silver lining. When it comes to college readiness, poor kids lag far behind their affluent peers and score well below national averages on the test.

RELATED: Passing Up Harvard: Qualified Black and Latino Kids Aren't Applying to Top Colleges

“College readiness begins very, very early on,” said Alex Chough, vice president of government relations at the National Council for Community and Education Partnerships, which coproduced the report with ACT. The differences between rich and poor students, he said, “are mirrored throughout the entire education continuum, from prekindergarten moving forward.”

The report, titled The Condition of College & Career Readiness 2015: Students From Low-Income Families, found that half of all students from financially struggling families didn’t hit any of the four ACT college readiness benchmarks, compared with 31 percent of all students.

At the same time, the proportion of students reaching each of the four ACT benchmarks—English, reading, mathematics, and science—was between 38 to 43 percentage points lower for students from poorer families when compared with those from families with annual incomes of $100,000 or more.

The results come despite the ACT’s attempts to level the playing field. According to the report, the standardized testing giant now offers free online prep courses and practice exams to low-income students who qualify, and it waives fees for the exam itself for students who can’t afford to pay.

RELATED: Battle Over Standardized Testing Exposes Deep Rifts in Education Reform Community

“Until these results improve, many students from poorer families are likely destined for a life of financial struggle and lapsed educational plans,” Jim Larimore, ACT chief officer for the advancement of underserved learners, said in a statement accompanying the study.

“There are a number of factors that are at play here,” Chough said. “If you look at what high-income schools and what low-income schools have to offer in terms of personalized support to students who are off-track, those differences are stark.”

Besides lacking the resources for quality college preparation—advanced placement courses, up-to-date computer labs, or a fully staffed guidance office, for example—underserved schools typically don’t have systems that can help bring students up to speed in the classroom, he said.

RELATED: Kids of Color Are Already Behind on Landing These Future Jobs

“It may be more than a [resource] parity issue,” Chough said, noting that poor schools may be trying to prepare “an eighth-grade student who is reading at a third- or fourth-grade level. It may cost more to accelerate that student to catch up.”

“One of the other studies ACT has conducted that I think is really interesting is that early intervention is absolutely necessary,” he added. “The earlier we identify that, the more direct services we can provide. That has to happen well before eighth grade.”

At the same time, many college-bound students in struggling schools may not know what it takes to get to the next education level—“what a college education costs, what it takes to prepare for higher education,” Chough said. “Picking the right college can be a really, really complicated process.”

Ultimately, Chough and others agree that if the nation is to meet Obama’s goal of producing the most college graduates in the industrialized world by the year 2020—and break the cycle of poverty for some families—an overhaul of how low-income children are educated is needed.

RELATED: Why It Might Be Time to Treat Child Poverty Like a Medical Condition

“What the research is showing over and over is it’s going to take more than the status quo,” he said, noting that NCCEP has used federal grants to enact an initiative, called GEAR UP, designed to help low-income students get to college. “More than likely, it will take a pretty serious rethinking of how we go about doing our business. It will probably require some resources.”

That includes “nonacademic supports” to help students engage in planning their academic paths from high school to college, such as the classes they’ll need to take to qualify, as well as advice on college applications and financial aid.

“The end game is making sure they are motivated to go on to higher education and have the requisite academic foundation” for college, Chough said.

If this is done properly and in a timely fashion, he said, “you can see some pretty transformational outcomes.”