MADISON – Wisconsin high-school students are again among the nation’s elite when it comes to scoring well on the ACT, a major college preparedness test. With an average score of 22.2 on a 36-point scale, Wisconsin ranked second nationally among states that depend on the ACT, falling only one-tenth of 1 percentage point behind first-place Minnesota.

While high average scores on the ACT reflect the quality of Wisconsin’s schools, all states, from Minnesota and Wisconsin on down, would do better to focus on a more important criteria imbedded in the scores: How many students are ready for college in the four core subjects measured by the test?

The answer in Wisconsin for the 2006 crop of test-takers is 28 percent, meaning 72 percent are not college-ready in one or more subjects – English, reading, mathematics and science.

That’s considerably better than the national figure of 21 percent, but still disturbing when judged against a traditional mission of the elementary and secondary school system. If less than one in three Wisconsin students leave high school ready for college, is it any wonder that so many fall short in their post-secondary efforts? And what is to become of the 72 percent of students – none of whom we can afford to waste in a globally competitive marketplace?

The folks who administer the ACT are pretty blunt about this readiness gap. They insist that unless students take a rigorous set of courses in high school, they are likely to struggle with the test and, more important, with their classes in college.

ACT recommends a core curriculum of four years of English and three or more years each of mathematics, science and social studies. In Wisconsin, only 57 percent of students reported taking a core curriculum compared to 54 percent nationally. That means 43 percent of Wisconsin students aren’t taking the courses they need to succeed in college.

Seventy-seven percent of Wisconsin students earned a benchmark score of 18 on the ACT English test compared to 69 percent nationally. A benchmark score is the minimum score needed on an ACT subject-area test to indicate a 50 percent or better chance of earning a “B” or higher grade or about a 75 percent chance of earning a “C” or better in the corresponding credit-bearing college courses.

In mathematics, 52 percent of state students earned the benchmark score of 22 or better compared with 42 percent nationally, meaning these students are ready to take college-level algebra. Sixty-one percent earned a 21 or higher on the ACT reading test, compared with 53 percent nationally. The reading score corresponds with readiness for college-level social studies course work.
In the science portion of the test, 35 percent of Wisconsin students earned a 24 or higher, meaning they are ready for college biology classes. Nationally, 27 percent of students earned the science (biology) benchmark score.

Here’s some distressing news: 30 percent of white students hit the benchmark scores in all four ACT areas, compared with 14 percent of Hispanic students and just 3 percent of African-American students. That means Hispanic and African-American students probably aren’t being challenged with the kinds of courses that would best prepare them for college, or they’re simply choosing not to take those courses.

Dr. Richard Ferguson, the chief executive officer for the ACT, warned too many kids aren’t taking their high-school years seriously – and it costs them when they move on.

“Only two in 10 graduates … met or exceeded all four benchmarks,” Ferguson said in a recorded interview. “This doesn’t mean they won’t be successful and graduate from college, but it does mean there’s a higher likelihood that they’ll struggle or need some remediation along the way.”

“The message still isn’t getting across, it seems, to far too many students,” Ferguson added. “If they intend to go to college, they need to take high school seriously and take an ever more challenging series of courses.”

Not every kid can or should attend a four-year college, but there’s no getting around the fact that taking core courses in high school will serve all students as they enter the “Knowledge Economy” of the 21st century. It’s a safe bet that students around the world aren’t avoiding courses on language, reading, math and science; Americans kids cannot afford to do so.

It’s great that Wisconsin’s average ACT scores are high. But until more students are taking the courses they need to succeed, our above-average scores will look pretty ordinary on the international scale.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.