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Horace Mann, one of the earliest advocates for universal public education in the United States, said “education, then, beyond all other divides of human origin, is a great equalizer of conditions of men—the balance wheel of the social machinery.” The ability of education to improve an individual’s social and economic mobility is unparalleled.
Competency in reading, quantitative skills, and science are not only required for attainment of degrees. Modern American life utilizes increasingly complicated financial products–mortgages, insurance plans, credit options, and retirement savings. Advanced medical technology requires more complex decisions for patients and families. Information literacy in the digital age is needed now more than ever.
In the recently released report of 2018 Nebraska high school graduates’ ACT scores, 81% of Nebraska graduates aspired to post-secondary education. It is clear Nebraska students and families value education as the gateway to a better future. The great tragedy is revealed a few pages earlier in the report. While 8 in 10 students want to pursue higher education, only a little over 2 in 10, 22%, met the proficiency benchmarks in english, reading, math, and science necessary to succeed in first year college courses. More outrageous, 4 in 10 did not meet a single benchmark.
A student’s academic potential cannot be measured by a single test, nor should a student be defined by a single score. However, taken in aggregate, the results of the first year in which all Nebraska high school juniors are required to take the ACT test should sound alarm bells among parents and policy makers. It is incorrect to assert the ACT is only relevant for students pursuing a four year college degree. The modern ACT is far more than a memorization and recall standardized test. Today’s ACT is a sophisticated evaluation tool that assesses skill and competency in english, math, reading, and science.
While much focus is incorrectly placed on the composite score, the ACT has developed a series of metrics that effectively predict how prepared a student is for introductory college courses. Using comprehensive data, the ACT has established baseline scores in four different areas that predict a student will have a 75% chance of scoring a grade of C or better in an introductory college course, the college readiness benchmarks referenced above.
The 6 in 10 Nebraska high school graduates who want to pursue education beyond high school but do not possess the proficiency in the four skill areas to be successful in a first year college course have several options. All come with a significant out of pocket cost. First, they can enroll in college course work, struggle, and drop out. Second, they can pay for remedial coursework in college to build the skill set they did not attain in high school, costing both years and tuition dollars. Third, they can change their post-high school goals from their aspirations, limited by their lack of proficiency in high school skills. In all three of these alternatives, most Nebraska students and their families will be taking on debt to finance the costs.
The fourth, and worst alternative, is that students not prepared for academic work beyond high school, regardless of their desire, simply cannot pursue it. The great equalizer of education is beyond their reach. This is the greatest tragedy of all.
College is not the best or only path for every high school graduate. However, every high school graduate in Nebraska should be prepared to have the option to pursue a two or four year degree if they choose. The systematic failure across the state of our public education system to prepare all students for success beyond the high school diploma cannot be ignored. The Nebraska Education Commissioner saying the state is doing “relatively well” is a cop out. Nebraska students and families deserve better. Education leaders need to stop making excuses.
From the Great Recession, triggered by complex mortgages many consumers did not understand, to the 2016 election in which voters could not discern real from fake information on their social media feed, recent history is riddled with avoidable complications created by a lack of academic proficiency in basic quantitative and reading skills. Now, more than ever, students need to be leaving high school with verifiable skills, not just a diploma.