Destined to Fail

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 2.2 million freshmen started college in the United States last fall.  If recent trends continue, more than a third of them will not have a diploma six years later—and few of those will ever complete college.

Academics and activists routinely bemoan low college graduation and retention rates and say that something ought to be done about them.  But how many of this year’s first-year students were prepared for college-level work in the first place?

Asking that question is taboo in an era when “everyone” goes to college, but it must be answered before serious progress will be made toward improving student achievement.

And answering the question is not difficult if people start to look. Two major testing organizations have created benchmarks that offer very clear guidelines for determining whether students are likely to succeed in college. Both of those organizations, ACT and the College Board (which administers the SAT), have found that fewer than half of college-bound seniors are prepared for the work ahead of them. Yet universities continue to welcome such students—and their dollars.

ACT’s College Readiness Benchmarks are found in its 2005 study “Crisis at the Core: Preparing All Students for College and Work.” ACT has identified signs of achievement in high school that give students “a high probability of success in such credit-bearing college courses as English Composition, Algebra, and Biology.” ACT defines success as a 75 percent chance of earning a grade of C or better and a 50 percent chance of earning a B or better.

In order to be a part of the group likely to succeed, a student must score at least 18 on the English composition portion of the ACT, 22 on algebra, and 24 on biology. (The SAT equivalents are for 455 on reading and 560 on math—a total of 1015.)

Using ACT’s benchmarks, only 22 percent of students who took the test in 2003-2004 were ready across all three subjects. Sixty-eight percent were ready for English composition; forty percent were ready for algebra; but just 26 percent were ready for biology.

The College Board’s findings are similar, and more recent. A 2010 report, “The Development of a Multidimensional College Readiness Index,” defines college readiness as “having at least a 65 percent probability of obtaining a B- (or 2.67) or higher first year grade point average (GPA).” This standard is widely used by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and other measurements of student success.

According to the SAT report, three benchmarks determine whether high school students meet the standard: Students must obtain a 1550 SAT score (out of 2400, or about 1030 on math and reading only), earn a 3.33 high school GPA (a solid B), and take high school courses of “average” rigor.

Using the College Board’s three-test benchmark, only 31.9 percent of SAT-tested 2009 high school graduates were deemed “college-ready.” Twenty-three percent of test-takers met none of the three benchmarks.

For the year 2011, the record is even worse. Average SAT verbal scores are the lowest on record—at 497. When added to the average math score—just 514—the combined average SAT score is 1011. Compare this to the 1030 on math and reading tests that the College Board determines necessary for academic success.  Thus, over half the students who took the SAT in 2011 are not prepared for college-level work.

Despite this well-documented lack of preparation, droves of unprepared high school graduates are accepted and enroll in colleges and universities every year.

The College Board has developed a second, lower set of benchmarks that predict whether these marginal students are likely to earn at least a C average during their freshman year. To get a C average, a prospective student can, according to the College Board, get by with scores of 360 on the SAT verbal and 370 on the SAT mathematics to qualify. (Keep in mind that 200 is the lowest score available on either section.)

The seeming disconnect between the conventional idea of a C as an “average” grade and woefully low SAT scores is made possible by grade inflation, dumbing down of courses, and increased remediation. Stuart Rojstaczer has explained in the Washington Post that grade inflation is so pronounced that a B, once considered a good mark, has become the new indicator of “average” performance. And the C, “an endangered species” on campus, is now a sign of academic disaster.

Moreover, the U.S. Department of Education reports that about a third of first-year college students take at least one remedial course—an indicator that their math or verbal skills are below acceptable minimums. The fact that so many students need remedial classes seems to confirm the accuracy of the ACT and SAT benchmarks.

These end-runs around real academic achievement allow administrators to continue pursuing their goals of access and graduation while ignoring poor student preparation and performance.

It’s time for universities to face reality: many students are not prepared for college-level material. Waiting for high schools to improve outcomes hasn’t worked. Universities must change their focus from access to achievement by raising admissions standards to meaningful levels and stopping the debasement of the curriculum and grading standards.

Sending unprepared students to college only sets them up for failure.