Equity and Opportunity

Learning to swim would be difficult without water. No matter how strong your imagination, there’s nothing like dunking your head in a pool to transform the abstract into reality.

Similarly, learning the skills necessary to succeed in college and career is difficult without taking the classes that teach those skills—but that’s exactly what we’re asking many students to do.

According a recent report from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, only 33 percent of high schools with high black and Latino student enrollment offer calculus. The comparable figure for high schools with low black and Latino enrollment is 56 percent.

If you do the math, the data indicate you are nearly twice as likely to have the chance to take calculus if you attend a “high-majority” as compared to a high-minority high school.

Similarly, 84 percent of high-majority high schools offer Algebra II, compared to 71 percent of high-minority schools. For chemistry, the comparable figures are 78 and 65 percent, and for physics the numbers are 67 and 48 percent, respectively.

In America, we speak often of the “achievement gap,” but much less frequently about the opportunity gap.

If schools don’t offer Algebra II, calculus, chemistry, or physics, why would we think their students have had the opportunity to master those subjects?

When it comes to college admissions, why would we presume those students are competing on a level playing field?

And when it comes to STEM, why would we believe they’re aware of the lucrative careers available in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics?

Chances are they would struggle on each of these fronts, meaning the passive-but-still-real segregation they experience growing up—which separates young people from strong schools, challenging curricula, and nurturing neighborhoods—would also separate these students from many of the academic skills needed to propel them through high school, college and career.

Compounding the issues of preparation are those involving access. Fewer than half of graduates in the U.S. high school class of 2015 met at least three of the four ACT college readiness benchmarks. According to ACT’s just-released College Choice Report, however, even among those well-prepared graduates, about a fifth did not enroll in either a two- or four-year college last fall.

In fact, nearly 90,000 ACT-tested students met all four ACT readiness benchmarks, earning an average ACT composite score of 27.6, did not enroll in college last fall, even though 83 percent of them aspired to earning a bachelor’s or graduate degree.

That is heartbreaking.

Just a few weeks ago ACT launched the ACT Center for Equity in Learning. At the launch, guest speaker Wes Moore, an incisive author and analyst, said it was impossible—and unfair—to judge students while ignoring their larger societal context.

“If you don’t understand the macro, you cannot understand the micro,” said Moore. “And the reason educational access and opportunity become so important is that becomes our ultimate equalizer.”

The Center will partner with other organizations, funders, thought leaders, policy makers, and advocacy partners to make evidence-based recommendations—and then roll up its sleeves to transform policy into practice, and practice into improved student performance.

“Equity is about the bottom line,” added Michelle Asha Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, who also spoke at the launch event. “If you want a strong workforce, if you want a strong economy, you really can’t afford not to pay attention to our country’s equity concerns.”

Sink-or-swim has never been an effective teaching technique.

We cannot deny students the classes they need, as well as the protective social institutions other students take for granted, wait 18 years, and then push them into the pool. It’s no wonder many young people find themselves in over their heads.

We must do better. Through the leadership of the ACT Center for Equity in Learning, and with the contributions of all those who care about every student across America, I’m confident we can and will do better in the years to come.