College & Workforce Readiness

High School Students Think They Are Ready for College. But They Aren’t

By Elizabeth Heubeck — February 21, 2024 5 min read
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There’s nothing worse than approaching a challenging situation grossly unprepared—except, perhaps, believing that you’re well-equipped for the task only to find that you’ve overestimated your preparedness. It’s a scenario that’s becoming increasingly common for college-bound seniors.

At last count, 62 percent of 2022 high school graduates enrolled in either a two- or four-year college immediately after graduation. But students’ college readiness has reached historic lows, according to several metrics—including the lowest scores in 30 years on the ACT and declining scores on the SAT, the two primary standardized tests used for college admissions. And yet, more than 4 in 5 high school seniors report feeling “very” or “mostly” academically prepared for college, according to a 2023 ACT nationwide survey.

They’re not, say experts.

“Fewer students leaving high school are meeting all four college readiness benchmarks [on ACT tests]. Just 21 percent of high school seniors are meeting all of these benchmarks; 43 percent of students meet none of them,” said Janet Godwin, CEO of the ACT, referring to English composition, social sciences, algebra, and biology. “Our research suggests that students meeting so few of these benchmarks are not going to perform as well in their ccredit-bearing freshman classes.”

While experts agree that the pandemic exacerbated declining academic performance across all demographics and stages of K-12 learning, signs of falling college readiness began earlier. In 2023, the average ACT score was 19.5 out of a possible 36, and the 6th straight year of decline. Test takers also are coming to both tests from more diverse backgrounds, in part due to programs like the SAT School Day program, which allows students to take the SAT during the school day, often free of charge. But experts say scores are dropping across demographics.

The trend of high school students’ declining college readiness, in tandem with their widespread perceived preparedness, may lead to a perfect storm of sorts for countless incoming college freshmen—possibly resulting in immediate bewilderment, followed by frustration or even dropping out of college altogether. Below, find some other signs of declining college readiness, as well as academic patterns at the secondary school level that may at least partly explain the decline and students’ obliviousness to their predicament.

At the college level, reports of more remedial work and fewer academic skills

Students’ academic ill-preparedness can become evident as soon as they reach college campuses.

In 2019-20, 65.4 percent of first-year undergraduate students took a remedial course in math; 42.1 percent did so in reading or writing, according to the most recent data on the subject available from the National Center for Education Statistics. That’s a big jump from just four years prior. In 2015-2016, 14 percent of first-year college students took a remedial course in math; 8.8 percent did so in reading and writing.

The decline in academic skills hasn’t gone unnoticed by college professors. Adam Kotsko, who’s been teaching humanities and social sciences at various small liberal arts colleges for well over a decade, noted significant changes in students’ grasp of basic skills within the past five years. Previously, he would typically assign around 30 pages of reading per class—what he once considered a baseline expectation.

“Now students are intimidated by anything over 10 pages and seem to walk away from readings of as little as 20 pages with no real understanding,” opined Kotsko, now an assistant professor at North Central College in Illinois, in an essay for Slate. “Considerable class time is taken up simply establishing what happened in a story or the basic steps of an argument—skills I used to be able to take for granted.”

Reports of rising grades and loosening academic rigor in high school

Ironically, research has shown a concurrent, steady increase in high school grades—grade inflation—during the pandemic, as educators and students tried to push on with instruction through school shutdowns, remote schooling, illness, and grief.

“We think people were trying to be more kind, perhaps,” said ACT’s Godwin. “We saw a spike in grade inflation.”

A sweeping study by the ACT that tracked high school students’ grades between 2010 and 2022 found that students’ subject GPA increased year over year from 2010 to 2022 in core subjects. For instance, during this 12-year time frame, students’ average adjusted English GPA increased from 3.17 to 3.39; for math, adjusted subject GPA increased from 3.02 to 3.32. By 2022, the overwhelming majority of high school students—more than 89 percent—received either an A or a B in math, English, social studies, and science, according to the ACT study.

As high school grades improve, some districts and states have sought to revise their grading systems in ways that critics see as leading to grade inflation. (For their part, school system have argued that the changes are intended to make grading more equitable and boost students’ motivation.)

In 2016, Montgomery County, Md., public school officials removed high-stakes midterms and finals in their high schools. To calculate semester grades, teachers had to combine quarter letter grades and, at times, round up, according to a local news report. The change meant that a student could earn an A in one quarter and a B in the other while still receiving a semester A, critics said. As of press time, several attempts to reach district officials went unanswered.

Other school systems have moved to “50 percent rule” grading systems, which prohibit teachers from giving zeroes for missing work.

Most states in recent years have stopped requiring high school students to pass certain exams in order to graduate, and some of the nine remaining holdouts may be moving in this direction soon. In Florida, for instance, a bill to eliminate a requirement that students pass an Algebra I end-of-course and 10th grade English/language arts exams in order to graduate recently cleared the Senate’s education committee.

Lack of standardized tests for college may further cloud student profiles

During the pandemic, due largely to restrictions on in-person testing, the number of colleges and universities with test-optional admissions policies swelled to a majority. Many have yet to reinstate the tests as a requirement. Experts suggest that currently, only about 20 percent of higher education institutions are requiring them. Lacking standardized test results may make it challenging for admissions officials to accurately gauge students’ college readiness, say experts.

“The last thing we want to see happen to our students getting into college is perhaps getting placed in the wrong courses freshman year, perhaps not having their academic advisers have all the information they need to properly advise them and to make sure they have the proper supports in place,” said Godwin. “We want students to be successful. That means having a good understanding of where they are for college.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 13, 2024 edition of Education Week as High School Students Think They Are Ready for College. But They Aren’t

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