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Inclusion and Opportunity

College was once a privilege afforded to the fortunate few. For most high school graduates, a diploma was the end of the educational road. The road may not have been paved with gold, but it did lead to steady employment in stable careers that paid solid middle class wages. That was true in the United States, and perhaps even more the case in Europe, where I was born, raised, and educated.

Today, few of these assumptions endure. Instead of going straight to work, most high school graduates on both sides of the Atlantic enter some form of postsecondary education. Still, even with a college degree or vocational certification, it’s likely the modern millennial will have many jobs and even professions before easing into retirement—whatever that might look like a half century from now.

At ACT, we had the privilege of testing 64 percent of the U.S. high school Class of 2016—nearly 2.1 million students in all. What we found was both encouraging and sobering.

On the sobering side, the average composite score on the ACT declined slightly to 20.8, down from 21.0 last year. Across all graduates, 38 percent met the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks in at least three of the four core subject areas tested (English, math, reading, and science), an achievement that indicates they’re ready for first-year college success.

The flip side is that, based on their scores, 62 percent of graduates are not prepared. Worse, 34 percent met none of the ACT benchmarks, suggesting they will likely struggle with what comes next.

Still, while average scores are down, that doesn’t necessarily imply that the performance of this year’s graduates is worse.

How is that possible?

The reason is we are testing more students than ever—again, 64 percent of graduates this year, five percent more than a year ago. As a result, our findings include an additional 100,000 students who would not have tested before and are likely to score somewhat lower than previous testers.

Broad-based participation in the assessment process is a victory—for our society, which gets a more accurate perspective of America’s academic achievement, and for the nearly 2.1 million graduates who took the ACT, who now have a better understanding of the full range of opportunities available to them.

While 64 percent is a big number, an even bigger number is 84 percent—the percentage of this year’s tested seniors who aspire to postsecondary education.

The opportunities available to these students are considerable. By including them in the assessment process, we also include them in the conversation—the ones they are having with their counselors, parents, potential schools and training institutions, and most importantly themselves.

By better understanding where they stand, they can better appreciate where they need to go next. While their world may not resemble that experienced by their parents and grandparents, it is also likely to include opportunities few of us can even imagine.

And that, for all the students who will follow in our footsteps, is victory.