The Coming Wave of Freshman Failure

High-school grade inflation and test-optional policies spell trouble for America’s colleges.

A columnist covering K-12 education, I come to you, dear reader, with a warning: There’s a coming wave of college-freshman failure that will stress the institutions and systems of our universities. Grade schools haven’t and likely won’t recover from pandemic-era learning losses, and so, ready or not, a poorly educated generation is soon to flood your campuses.

We’ve all read the statistics. Students lost out on months’ worth of education, obliterating two decades’ worth of academic improvements. What’s more, we’re experiencing something of a “long Covid” in education. According to the testing company NWEA, students aren’t just not catching up. Rather, due to chronic absenteeism, behavior challenges, staffing shortages, and a general ennui in K-12 schooling, they are actually backsliding.

Ready or not, a poorly educated generation is soon to flood American campuses.This alone would pose a substantial problem for higher ed, but the obfuscation of admissions standards at colleges and universities only compounds the difficulty.

Consider GPAs. While a persistent problem for years, grade inflation has made even more headlines recently. In Los Angeles, where 73 percent of eleventh graders received an A, B, or C in math, only 19 percent actually met grade-level standards. According to the Los Angeles Times, the same disparity plays out across ages and subjects:

For eighth-graders, 79% earned A’s, B’s and C’s in math. Test scores showed 23% met grade-level standards.

In English, 85% of sixth-graders earned A’s, B’s and C’s, while 40% met grade-level standards.

• For seventh-graders, 82% earned A’s, B’s and C’s in English. Test scores showed 43% met standards.

As Ernest Hemingway might have predicted, inflated grades went bankrupt gradually, then all at once. According to the ACT, grades have been drifting up for the better part of a decade, even as test scores sank. Then, with school closures during the pandemic, many districts adopted no-fail, no-zero policies, thus accelerating grade inflation.

When everyone gets an A, grades communicate little to admissions offices at universities. How are admissions officials to arbitrate between two students with 4.0s? Who will succeed and who will fail at the college level?

As a teacher, I’ve taught many gifted students with perfect grades who nonetheless showed disparities in aptitudes. Just last year, the two most gifted students in all my classes were great friends. We’ll call them Jason and Jamal. They worked together. They had matching GPAs. They were known as the “smart kids.” Nonetheless, in group projects or if they had conflicting answers, Jason always deferred to Jamal. Jason was wicked smart, but Jamal was exceptional.

When everyone gets an A, grades communicate little to admissions offices at universities.The one place where Jamal differentiated himself was on standardized tests. Despite attending a poorly performing school, he outcompeted students at our city’s most prestigious institutions.

And here we arrive at our second confounding factor for this coming wave of freshman failure: the renunciation of standardized tests. At this point, over 80 percent of colleges no longer require the submission of standardized test scores for admission. Of course, universities (ostensibly) abandoned the use of these measures in an attempt to be understanding, fair, and equitable. But what actually happens when colleges revoke these policies, as they eventually must?

While imperfect, standardized tests remain the best measure of a child’s academic potential. They correlate highly to a student’s socioeconomic background, yes, but holistic measures such as extracurricular engagement and the quality of personal essays are even more biased towards affluent students. Little Samantha’s parents have the money to pay for writing tutoring, the social capital to get her a letter of recommendation from a school’s notable alum, and the leisure time to cart her around to various activities. Jamal’s mom works two shifts to make rent, but he studied for the SAT and blew Samantha’s score out of the water regardless.

Students are further behind than ever at the same time colleges lack the information that would allow them to gauge which prospective students are ready for the rigor of university and which aren’t.

So let’s consider a quintessential student coming to campus in 2023: He’s despairingly behind, though that’s not quite the right word. His learning resembles a half-built bridge. Some portions are complete, but many are unconstructed. He may have learned about the Civil War before the pandemic, but he put his teacher on mute when she discussed the Holocaust. Perhaps he knows algebra from the years after Covid, but he struggles with negative integers because he played Fortnite during that online lesson.

When unprepared students complain about unmeetable expectations, will professors and institutions hold fast?To make matters worse, this student has no conception of his insufficiency. No teacher ever had the tough love that it would have taken to fail him or demand that he repeat a course. No administrator ever leveled with his parents about their child’s subpar performance. And no university can tell whether he will flourish or fail.

When students like this one flood onto campus, what will happen? What will happen when they face college-level statistics courses but can’t solve for x? What will happen when a history professor assigns a 3,000-word essay on primary documents written in turgid prose? When students complain about unfair grading practices or unmeetable expectations, will professors and institutions hold fast, or will they crumble and sink?

If K-12 is any model, there’s little hope to catch such students up. The federal government provided a glut of additional funding, and schools implemented high-dose tutoring regimes, additional summer-school programs, and countless other catch-up strategies. None of them worked. Nary a one. Any rosy-eyed prediction that colleges can catch kids up is naive.

That leaves colleges with two options: lower standards and shuffle students along or hold the line and hand out some Fs. Neither is ideal, but universities have to choose between Scylla and Charybdis.

Holding fast before the flood is without doubt the least bad option. That means universities must readopt standardized tests. It’s not a university’s job to play around with social promotion or participation trophies. Our K-12 schools may very well unfairly and insufficiently educate our children, but the universities, the end of our education system, are not the place to remedy these errors. Johns Hopkins Medical School should not accept an inadequate student for surgeon training, nor should Yale Law admit poor JD candidates out of deference to some unnamed injustice. These professions are too important to play social reformer with. 

Standardized tests won’t fix learning loss, but they do carry information about preparedness.Instead, universal screenings such as standardized tests are the best means to winnow out gifted, average, and below-average students. Tests won’t fix learning loss, but they do accurately and succinctly carry information about preparedness for success to admissions offices.

Ultimately, I pity the prototypical student right now. He’s been fed digital fentanyl by way of TikTok and Instagram. He’s been simultaneously condescended to and overprotected for his entire life. Public schools have fed him a milquetoast education that not only fails to hone the mind, embolden the character, or stir the heart, but at times neglects even basic literacy and numeracy.

That being said, what such students need is not another educrat lowering standards for them. As a wave of students who have fallen behind amble onto campus, what they need is a professor to challenge them, a curriculum to inspire them, and an institution to treat them like adults and demand excellence. Maybe, just maybe, if someone treats them so, there won’t be a wave of failure but a generation that rises to the challenge.

Daniel Buck is a former English teacher, a policy and editorial associate at the Fordham Institute, and the author of What Is Wrong with Our Schools?