These posts are the opinions of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of A+ Colorado.

Are Students Ready to ACT?

It’s not new news in Colorado that in five years nearly three-quarters of jobs will require some sort of postsecondary education. Nor is it new news that Denver students don’t meet those credentials. We’ve written before that too few DPS graduates are headed to college and that even those that head to college aren’t prepared.

Now that there’s a healthy discussion about the role of the city in getting Denver students to and through college, recently adopted requirements for all Colorado high school graduates, and a new slate of data available, the time is ripe to check-in on how DPS is doing preparing students for college.

Let’s start with how students are faring on rigorous coursework: the Advanced Placement (AP) is a comparable measure of students who are ready to succeed in college-level courses.  First, 3% more students took AP exams in 2015 than in 2014 (in 2015 about 4,500 students took over 7,000 tests). And even with the increased participation, AP pass rates—a 3 or higher on the exam– rose from 40% to 43%.

Some schools have made significant progress driving this improvement, particularly for low-income students:

High Schools Improving Pass Rates for Low-Income Students
AP Pass Rate 2015 for Low-Income Students (Excluding Spanish Language Tests)[1] AP Pass Rate 2014 for Low-Income Students (Excluding Spanish Language Tests)
DCIS High School 31.2% 19.5%
Denver School of the Arts 45.2% 34.7%
DSST: Stapleton High School 75.2% 56.3%
East High School 35.7% 29.8%
George Washington High School 14.8% 11.7%
John F. Kennedy High School 16.2% Fewer than 16 tests passed
North High School 26.1% 12.5%
STRIVE Prep-SMART Academy 38.6% Fewer than 16 tests passed
Thomas Jefferson High School 32.2% 22.3%

Though their low-income pass rates fell last year, it’s worth noting that DSST: Green Valley Ranch is one of only two schools in the district (the other being DSST: Stapleton) with over a 50% pass rate on tests taken by low-income students. 

But do improvements in AP pass rates (which, though better, are still low) also translate to college-readiness across the district? Looking at the lowest bar—demonstrating college or career-readiness per the state’s new graduation guidelines—it seems like perhaps not.

For the ACT, Colorado’s graduation guidelines require an 18 in English and a 19 in Math (out of 36) to demonstrate students have learned what they were supposed to across their K-12 education. In DPS there are 10 schools whose average score met the state’s English requirement, and 9 schools whose average score met the state’s Math requirement. Out of 43 schools. That means in 80% of Denver’s high schools, more than half of the junior class does not know enough math to graduate.

The implications of the ACT go well beyond graduation requirements; ACT scores are a litmus test for colleges. A part of the college admissions formula, they are a predictor of success in college classes. But DPS graduates are falling short by every benchmark:

College Course ACT Test Benchmark (the ACT benchmarks represent what is needed for a 50% chance of getting a B or higher, or 75% chance of getting a C or higher in a corresponding college course) DPS Average Score 2015
English Composition English 18 17.2
College Algebra Math 22[2] 18.5
Social Sciences Reading 22 18.3
Biology Science 23 18.7


And the news gets tougher as we look at college admissions. DPS graduates are simply not earning the scores they need to get into college. The table below shows the ACT score that 75% of admitted students at Colorado higher ed institutions score at or above, alongside the percent of Denver students that also earn that score.



College 25th Percentile Score (i.e. 75% of admitted students score at or above this score) Percent of DPS Students meeting or exceeding score (2015) Percent of DPS Low-Income Students meeting or exceeding score (2015)
US Air Force Academy 29 5.9%  (5.4% in 2014) 1.1% (1.0% in 2014)
Colorado College 27 9.5% (8.9% in 2014) 2.1% (2.0% in 2014)
University of Colorado-Boulder 24 17.2% (18.0% in 2014) 6.5% (7.4% in 2014)
Colorado State University 22 24.5% (25.2% in 2014) 12.2% (12.7% in 2014)
University of Colorado Denver 20 33.9% (35.1% in 2014) 21.2% (22.5% in 2014)
Metro State University of Denver 18 46.9% (47.4% in 2014) 35.1% (34.9% in 2014)


More DPS students scored at levels that would make them competitive applicants at the most selective Colorado colleges.  Which matters—college graduation rates are significantly higher at more selective institutions (six-year graduation rates are near 90% at colleges with a 25% acceptance rate, compared to 60% at colleges that admit half of all applicants, and 34% at colleges with open admission). And this past year slightly more low-income students met the score that would likely earn them admission at Metro than the year before.

But less than half of Denver students score well enough to likely get accepted to Metro.  So, as Denver considers the best way to tackle barriers to college access, and the role of the city in breaking down those barriers, we must not take our eye off the essential work that still needs to be done at the K-12 level to prepare students academically to have a shot at college success.


[1] I look at pass rates of all tests excluding Spanish Language Tests, not because these aren’t important or valid tests, but because these tests tend to have significantly higher pass rates than pass rates on any other test, particularly at schools serving primarily low-income and Latino students.  Including the tests can blur the extent to which schools are preparing students for college in other subjects.

[2] You may notice that Colorado Math graduation requirement (19) is significantly lower than what the ACT itself says a student needs to be college ready (22).  Seems to me that the graduation guidelines are sending kids the wrong message– that college-readiness isn’t what Colorado expects of them.