ID-10067185More Arizona eighth-graders are better prepared than they were two years ago for their educational and career futures, according to a recent study, and a statewide college- and career-readiness program may help explain why.

The EXPLORE Program is the ACT’s measurement of eighth- and ninth-grade student achievement in English, math, reading and science. Administered by Northern Arizona University’s GEAR UP, the program is designed to help students plan for high school and guide them as they start thinking about post-high school educational and career opportunities. It also can be an early indicator of college readiness.

Over the past two years, students from 225 schools across the state have participated in the EXPLORE Program by taking its assessment in the fall of their eighth grade. School staff then worked with students and their parents to understand the results and to plan appropriately for high school. School staff also used the data to identify strengths and weaknesses in curriculum and instruction and make adjustments to improve their students’ academic preparation.

About one-third of the more than 35,000 students in participating schools met or exceeded the program’s college and career readiness benchmarks in 2012-13, which is nearly an 11 percent increase over the prior year, indicating that more Arizona students are demonstrating the level of academic performance that will put them on track to succeed in postsecondary education.

The gains were revealed during a recent analysis of the program by NAU College of Education researchers. Focusing on schools with large percentages of students eligible for free and reduced lunch and representing diverse regions within the state, the researchers identified those schools that had made significant gains in EXPLORE scores from one year to the next.

Four schools in particular, each of which is located in low-income, primarily rural areas of the state—Anthem K-8 School (Florence), Fourth Avenue Junior High (Yuma), Oak Creek Elementary (Cottonwood) and ASU Preparatory Academy (Phoenix)—demonstrated “remarkable” growth in their eighth grade students’ college and career readiness.

Christine Totura, the NAU researcher who led the study, said that while gains in EXPLORE scores have been made for schools across the state, the notable improvement in these four schools suggests that students are especially being reached academically in schools experiencing greater economic and resource challenges.

The four schools were recognized earlier this month at the third annual Arizona EXPLORE Summit in Phoenix.

Arizona public schools that wish to participate in the EXPLORE Program can contact NAU GEAR UP at (602) 776-4616.