The attainment of a bachelor’s degree opens up a world of enduring benefits from personal growth and intellectual enrichment (1) to expanded career opportunities, job stability, and greater lifetime income (2). Plus, college can be a blast! No wonder more teens than ever are pursuing higher education. But while it is important that we ask ourselves the question, “Is college right for me?” we should also be asking, “Am I ready for college?”
What does college readiness mean? On some levels, readiness manifests as the emotional maturity and independence to thrive in a new, less-restrictive environment. Readiness also encompasses the intrinsic motivation to attend classes, complete assignments, and meet commitments without parental guidance. But one fundamental component of college readiness comes down to academic ability: is a student prepared for college-level work?
Traditionally, grades have been used to assess college readiness. After all, if a student passes every class in high school, college success seems assured. In reality, far too many students show up for college with deficient math and/or writing skills and have to take no-credit remedial courses before being allowed to fulfill core requirements. How many is too many? According to the report, Remediation: Higher Education’s Bridge to Nowhere, more than 50 percent of students entering two-year colleges and nearly 20 percent of those entering four-year universities are placed in remedial classes. (3) An alarming number of these students drop out before completing their degrees: fewer than 1 in 10 graduate from community colleges within three years and little more than a third complete bachelor’s degrees in six years.
In fact, the value of grades as predictors of objective academic ability has been dwindling rapidly, even before a global pandemic forced most schools into remote teaching models in which students faced uneven modes of learning and grading standards. Seth Gershenson’s groundbreaking report on Grade Inflation in High Schools (2005–2016) concluded that two-thirds of U.S. teenagers are ill-prepared for college when they leave high school despite high grades, which are often more inflated in schools attended by affluent students than in those attended by lower-income pupils. (4)
No wonder so many studies report that standardized tests and grades together often provide better predictions of college success than class grades alone. In addition, the two leading U.S. college entrance exams also serve as valuable research-supported assessments of college readiness.
SAT College and Career Readiness Benchmarks help students and educators assess student progress toward college readiness from year to year. Students with an SAT Math section score that meets or exceeds the benchmark have a 75% chance of earning at least a C in first-semester, credit-bearing college courses in algebra, statistics, pre-calculus, or calculus. Students with an SAT Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW) section score that meets or exceeds the benchmark have a 75% chance of earning at least a C in first-semester, credit-bearing college courses in history, literature, social sciences, or writing classes. Students are considered college- and career-ready when their SAT section scores meet both the Math and the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing benchmarks. (5)
ACT provides even more guidance about college readiness, establishing the minimum scores in each section of the ACT associated with a 50% chance of earning a B or better and approximately a 75% chance of earning a C or better in a suite of college courses including introductory English Composition, College Algebra, Social Studies, and Biology. (6) Interestingly–or perhaps disappointingly–the percentage of students meeting at least three of the four ACT College Readiness Benchmarks in 2019 was only 37%, down from 38% in 2018.
Test scores are no guarantees of college success, but they provide more clarity and objective certainty than any single classroom test can hope to offer. Exams like the ACT and SAT are carefully calibrated to align with academic standards across all 50 states as well as the educational priorities of our nation’s colleges and universities. For this reason, their score data should be an essential element in answering that fundamental question of college readiness. The consequences of pursuing higher education without the fundamental reading, writing, and quantitative skills needed to succeed can be both emotionally and economically disastrous.
1. 10 Benefits of Having a College Degree
2. Measuring the value of education
3. Remediation: Higher Education’s Bridge to Nowhere
4. Grade Inflation in High Schools (2005–2016)
5. SAT Suite of Assessments’ College and Career Readiness Benchmarks
6. ACT College and Career Readiness Benchmarks
A nationally recognized leader in test prep, Mike Bergin founded Chariot Learning in Rochester, NY in 2009 to deliver on the promise of what truly transformative, individualized education can and should be. Mike is also the founder of the free testing and admissions answer site TestBright, co-host of the Tests and the Rest college admissions industry podcast and conference series, and creator of the Facebook industry group for test prep professionals, Test Prep Tribe. Mike is the President of the NTPA Board of Directors.