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Many Underserved Students Have Interest in STEM, But Few Are Prepared to Succeed in College STEM Courses

Iowa City, Iowa — Underserved students are just as interested as other students in STEM subjects and careers, but they are far less likely to be prepared to succeed in them, according to a new report from ACT. Understanding the Underserved Learner—The Condition of STEM 2014 reveals that the greater the number of “underserved” characteristics students have, the lower their level of readiness tends to be.

“Underserved students have the same STEM aspirations as others, so it’s sad to see their achievement levels so far behind,” said Jon Erickson, ACT president. “This research provides an important reminder of why it’s so important to help improve educational outcomes for students who don’t have the same access to quality resources as others.”

Among ACT-tested 2014 high school graduates who are underserved—classified as minority students, low-income students and/or first-generation college students—49 percent had an interest in STEM (which stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics), the same interest level as the overall student population. Underserved students make up nearly half (47%) of all STEM-interested graduates.

Underserved students, however, are far less likely than students overall to be ready to succeed in first-year college STEM courses, as measured by the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks. For example, just 31 percent of underserved, STEM-interested students met or surpassed the benchmark on the ACT® math test, while only 25 percent achieved the benchmark on the science test. Those figures compare to 43 percent and 37 percent of all 2014 ACT-tested graduates, respectively, as reported in the ACT report The Condition of College & Career Readiness 2014.

The new report’s findings suggest that the three characteristics used to define underserved students have a cumulative negative effect on college readiness. Even when students have only one of the characteristics, they show lower readiness rates than STEM-interested students nationwide. When they have two characteristics, however, their readiness rates drop by more than 20 percentage points, and when all three characteristics are present, readiness rates drop by up to 34 percentage points.

“It is clear that underserved students face significant barriers in STEM areas,” said Jim Larimore, ACT chief officer for the advancement of underserved learners. “Minority students from low-income families who have parents who did not attend college have the odds stacked against them. ACT is working to make a difference in the lives of underserved learners by establishing programs and allocating funds to help improve college readiness and access for these students.”

Student interest in STEM is assessed in two ways. Students may have measured interest in STEM areas, shown by their results on the ACT Interest Inventory, and/or they may have expressed interest in STEM fields as shown by their intended choice of a college major or career. Students complete the ACT Interest Inventory when they register to take the ACT test.

ACT research shows that students who meet the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks are more likely to persist in college and earn a degree than those who don’t. The benchmarks specify the minimum score students must earn on each of the four ACT subject tests to have about a 75 percent chance of earning a grade of C or higher in a typical credit-bearing first-year college course in that subject area.

The ACT report can be viewed and downloaded for free on the ACT website at: www.act.org/stemunderserved2014.

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