March 2010
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Focusing the Essentials for College and Career Readiness

ACT has long advocated for fewer but deeper high school standards that focus closely on the learning that is essential for college success. ACT’s National Curriculum Survey, conducted every three to five years, collects data about what entering college students should know and be able to do to be successful at college-level learning. The 2009 ACT National Curriculum Survey, Focusing on the Essentials for College and Career Readiness, included data collected from more than 7,500 middle school, high school, college, and college remedial instructors of English, mathematics, reading, and science about the skills being taught at each grade level, and which skills are considered essential for college.  Respondents rated skills and knowledge on a zero-to-four scale (with one indicating “not important” and four indicating “high importance”) and also ranked groups of content and skills (called “strands”) in terms of their relative importance for college readiness. Important results of the 2009 survey included the fact that high school teachers tend to overstate their students’ readiness for college-level reading; that both high school and college instructors believe that readiness for college and readiness for workforce training require comparable skills; and that high school educators report that they reduce academic expectations for non-college-bound students.


New Findings for 2009

  • High school teachers were substantially more likely than college instructors to indicate that most of  their students are prepared for college-level reading (63 percent versus 25 percent).
  • More than two-thirds of science and mathematics instructors at both high school and college levels reported spending little or no time teaching students strategies to read and understand the materials required for the class.
  • Forty-two percent of high school teachers reported that they believe they or their colleagues reduce academic expectations for students who do not seem to be college bound. Only 6 percent of teachers reported there is no such reduction in expectations.
  • Both high school and college instructors place much more emphasis on skills like writing, mathematics, and critical thinking than on other skills such as  financial literacy and media literacy.

Findings Replicated from Earlier ACT Curriculum Surveys

  • Serious misalignment exists between high school and college educators’  views on college readiness—91 percent of high school teachers reported that their students were prepared for college-level work in their content area, while only 26 percent of college teachers reported that students arrived prepared.
  • The skills high school teachers view as important for college are less targeted than what college instructors actually expect of incoming students in terms of skill level. College instructors rated a smaller percentage of skills (57 percent) as being “very important” than high school teachers (67 percent).  College instructors also rated more skills as being of “low” or “no” importance (43 percent) than high school teachers (33 percent).
  • College science instructors rate science content topics as lower in importance than do high school teachers.  College instructors rated science process skills (how to accurately interpret data, how to make experimental design decisions, etc.) most highly.


The entire report may be downloaded in PDF format.



  • More than 70 percent of both high school and college teachers indicated that college-readiness skills and workforce training skills overlap.
  • Seventy-six percent of high school English teachers think their students are prepared for college-level reading; only 26 percent of college English teachers agree.
  • College mathematics instructors rank fundamental skills as more important than advanced mathematical topics; the opposite is true for high school math teachers.