Students Heading to College Next Year Are the Least College-Ready in 30 Years

What does this tell us?

Photo of college freshmen who is not college ready

As the excitement of flying graduation caps fades into the quiet anticipation of college, a stark reality is awaiting many of our nation’s high school seniors. Despite them confidently striding towards higher education, there is a significant disconnect between their perceptions of college readiness and their actual academic preparedness. Many students aren’t ready for college.

While 62% of high school graduates are enrolling in higher education, they have the lowest ACT/SAT scores in 30 years.

Recent findings about high school seniors’ enrollment and their standardized test scores have given us in the field of education quite a shock. Yet even among this reality, more than 80% of these high school seniors reported feeling “very” or “mostly” prepared for the academic rigor of college. Elizabeth Heubeck of EducationWeek knitted together the implications of this story. She quoted Janet Godwin, the CEO of ACT, as stating only 21% of high school seniors are meeting all four college-readiness benchmarks: English, math, reading, and science. Those who do not meet these benchmarks are likely to struggle significantly in their credit-bearing freshman classes.

Inflating grades isn’t helping anyone.

ACT continued to dig into this low ACT/SAT score problem. They found that high school GPAs are rapidly on the rise while standardized test scores are not. More than 89% of high school students received either an A or a B in math, English, social studies, and science. Yet, there is a mismatch with their academic ability. This suggests that schools may be inadvertently misleading students by awarding grades that overstate their actual academic abilities.

This grade-ability mismatch is partially due to the COVID-19 pandemic and grading policies, but it appears that grades haven’t readjusted back to student abilities yet. Heubeck describes instances of districts in Maryland and Florida where teachers are being encouraged to round up letter grades and remove high school exit exams.

Relaxing standard test requirements isn’t helping either.

Understandably, colleges adjusted to test-optional admission policies due to pandemic-related in-person testing restrictions. Lacking these academic measurements of students may make it harder to gauge a student’s true academic ability and how they are placed into courses. Many students aren’t ready for college. Students may have the ability to grade-grub and please their teacher in high school, but what is their content knowledge? Don’t we want our students to succeed in college and not fall flat on their faces when they can’t grade-grub anymore?

What this should tell us:


As we grapple with this information, we should consider what these results tell us.

  • We need to reevaluate how we evaluate. Beyond standardized test scores, districts across the country need to adopt grading reform that better communicates to students about their academic abilities. If we continue to give them a false signal about their abilities, we will continue to see underachievement.
  • We need more remediation before students head to college. The increase in remedial coursework at the college level is a symptom of a broader issue that begins long before students step onto campus. As such, enhancing the rigor of high school curricula, coupled with providing targeted support and resources, is crucial. Of course, we have to communicate these remedial opportunities to those who need it first. Students who continue to receive high grades without knowing they don’t have accurate content knowledge will never have the opportunity to readdress their learning gaps before heading to college.
  • We need to expand our definition of college readiness. Even as we highlight the issue of course grades and standardized tests, we cannot forget the noncognitive abilities that we want to ensure we still develop in our high school students before they head off to college.

We also need better funding.

We know we sound like a broken record. But in order to expand remediation, hold smaller classes, and close the gap between actual college readiness and what we’ve been forced to accept as college readiness, schools need money. It’s unfair to lay blame for this problem at the feet of anyone but those with the real power to change it.

The gap between perceived and actual college readiness is a challenge that requires a transformative shift in high schools. Many students aren’t ready for college. This calls for a response that recalibrates academic standards and grading practices to reflect true mastery. Addressing this issue demands a collective commitment to honest, transparent communication about students’ abilities and a support system that prepares them for the rigor of life after high school. By aligning our educational practices with the realities of student preparedness, we can help assist a new generation of learners who are ready to meet the challenges of higher education.

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