Eight of 10 public high school juniors in Illinois weren't considered ready for college classes in all subjects based on ACT testing last spring -- and many students missed the mark even at posh suburban Chicago schools that graduate some of the state's brightest kids.
At Lake Forest, Deerfield, Northbrook and Hinsdale high schools, more than 40 percent of students didn't meet all four "college readiness benchmarks" -- ACT scores indicating they could do at least average in key freshman classes.
In Lincolnshire and Naperville, more than half of juniors scored too low to reach the targets in English,reading, science and math, though several hundred met three of four benchmarks, usually missing in science.
The Tribune calculated college readiness figures from student ACT scores released for the first time by the state under the Freedom of Information Act. They reveal a less-flattering picture of schools accustomed to high rankings and raise questions about the rigor of high school classes.
The readiness numbers generated skepticism and even heated criticism from some educators who questioned ACT's benchmarks, though schools were hard-pressed to explain why their students weren't considered prepared.
The nonprofit ACT company stands by its readiness scores: at least 18 in English, 21 in reading, 22 in math and 24 in science. The top possible score is 36.
Paul Weeks, an assistant vice president at ACT, said students who don't meet those scores may find themselves in remedial courses or struggling in regular college classes.
"I will hear a story about a student who maybe fell far short of one or two or three benchmarks and went on to college and did well," Weeks said. "But when we look across all the data, that is not the case."
School officials insisted that their graduates do, in fact, go off to college and do well -- though that information comes from student surveys and anecdotes.
At New Trier Township High School on the North Shore, 98 percent of graduates attend college, said Assistant Superintendent Paul Sally, who oversees curriculum. "We believe in our curriculum at all levels and believe it prepares kids for college," he said.
Still, about 38 percent of juniors fell short of meeting ACT readiness targets in all four subjects last spring. Conversely, about 62 percent of students met all benchmarks -- more than triple the state average.
"I suspect most parents would consider that number surprisingly low," said John Rekenthaler, parent of a New Trier senior. "I don't think 62 is a number New Trier wants to be associated with."
In Will County, between 25 percent and 35 percent of juniors in Lincoln-Way Community High School District 210 high schools met all readiness standards.
"Our reaction is, we have a pit in our stomach," said Sharon Michalak, who oversees curriculum and instruction and stressed the quality of district courses, teachers and student support programs.
At a college night last week at Lisle Senior High School, parent Wendy Nadeau was stunned to learn from the Tribune that 36 percent of the school's juniors met all benchmarks.
"That's kind of shocking," she said, adding that she expected a figure of at least 75 percent.
Another Lisle parent, Tim Hagen, also expected a higher figure, though he questioned whether the benchmarks are reliable given that so many students aren't meeting them.
School officials suggested that outdated state standards for high school students could play a role -- the state is working on new, more rigorous standards -- and that some students may not be enrolled in challenging courses.
High schools typically offer rigorous honors and Advanced Placement classes for top students, followed by regular classes and then lower-level classes for struggling students.
"We all know that Algebra 2 is not always Algebra 2," said Weeks of ACT, because rigor differs from classroom to classroom.
Highland Park-based Township High School District 113 has worked to move students from lower to higher-level classes as they advance through high school, said Sue Hebson, assistant superintendent over instruction.
Across the district's schools, 56.5 percent of juniors met all benchmarks. "We've been sending our kids to top-notch colleges for many years, and they've been very successful," Hebson said.
The Tribune analyzed scores of more than 133,000 public school juniors required to take the ACT during state testing in April. Those juniors are now seniors of the Class of 2011, in the midst of college application season.
For privacy reasons, student names were not included in the data provided by the Illinois State Board of Education.
Overall, just 19.3 percent of the juniors met readiness scores in all subjects, while 35.2 percent didn't meet any benchmarks.
Students who missed every benchmark were disproportionately black, Latino and low-income, the Tribune found. For example, about 33 percent of students tested were low-income, but 55 percent of students who missed every benchmark were poor.
Students did best at meeting the benchmark in English and worst in science, the data show.
According to ACT, graduates meeting the benchmarks have at least a 50 percent chance of getting a B or higher -- and at least a 75 percent chance of getting a C or higher -- in related freshman classes. For example, the English test is connected to a freshman English composition class, the reading test to an introductory social science course, the math test to a college algebra class and the science test to a freshman biology course.
Nationwide, 24 percent of students met all four benchmarks, though that figure combines public and private school graduates who were tested as sophomores, juniors or seniors. The comparable figure in Illinois was 23 percent.
Glenbard South High School Principal Terri Hanrahan noted that the public school juniors tested in April had another year to prepare for college.
At her school, about 42 percent of juniors were college-ready in all four subjects -- higher than most DuPage County schools.
While the numbers are useful, Hanrahan said day-to-day classroom performance and course rigor also portend how students will fare in college. Glenbard South offers college-level AP courses in more than a dozen subjects and charts how much teens progress every year as they get closer to graduation.
"The ideal would be that any student who graduates from Glenbard South would have a chance at college," Hanrahan said. "But we know that everybody is not going to go to college. We know that not everybody wants to go to college, and frankly, we acknowledge that there are some kids who are not ready to go to college."
Teens themselves know that enrolling in tough courses is essential.
Joliet West High School student Sam Wietlispach scored a 34 on the ACT last spring and hit the benchmarks in every subject, though he doesn't dwell on the readiness scores.
He wants to major in mechanical engineering. To prepare, the 17-year-old senior enrolled in four of the six AP courses offered at his school.
"I feel like I have the skills I need," Wietlispach said. "It sort of comes down to really trying to earn A's and learning what I need to learn."
The Tribune found stark differences in college readiness in Chicago's massive school district.
The selective enrollment schools -- which require admissions testing -- had some of the most impressive numbers, with 78.8 percent of students at Northside College Prep meeting all readiness standards, the highest in the state.
But at nearly four dozen high schools, not one student met all four benchmarks.
Outgoing Chicago Public Schools chief Ron Huberman said student socioemotional issues are amplified in high school. School culture is another problem, with violent, chaotic buildings making learning next to impossible. Huberman hopes to mitigate the crisis with a $40 million anti-violence initiative.
Lane Tech College Prep High School beat state and national averages, with 26 percent of juniors meeting all readiness targets.
Principal Antoinette LoBosco said she thinks AP exams offer a more accurate snapshot of whether students are prepared for college, and she has been trying to offer those courses to all Lane Tech students.
As to the readiness benchmarks, LoBosco said, "We never look at that and say, 'Wow, we really, really need to work on these skills because our kids are dropping out of college,' because that's not true."
Several school officials questioned how well the readiness standards predict college success.
Statistician Steve Cordogan, director of research and evaluation for Arlington Heights-based Township High School District 214, called the measures "grossly inaccurate." The science standard, at 24, is predictive of how aspiring doctors or science majors would fare in a freshman biology course rather than a general studies student, he said.
The Illinois Board of Higher Education uses ACT's readiness data in its work to improve college access and quality, said Don Sevener, interim executive director.
"We take those numbers seriously," he said.