A closer look at college and career readiness

ACT survey shows discrepancies between standards and what is actually sought from graduates

“What is the purpose of an education?” For policymakers and experts in academic fields, this question has long served as an important point of reflection; for many, the answer has revolved around rigorous academic standards, career preparation, and college readiness.

New statistics on educational outcomes, however, suggest there are discrepancies between what high school educators believe their students should be learning and the types of skillsets employers and colleges are actually looking for.

ACT’s recently released 2016 National Curriculum Survey includes for the first time a sampling of workforce supervisors and employees. The analysis, along with information from educators, provides a more accurate look into how effectively the priorities of educators match with those of potential employers and college admissions offices.

Contrary to what many educators believe, workplaces reported several non-academic criteria as being most important to them, specifically behavioral skills. These include “acting honestly,” by treating others sincerely and genuinely, “sustaining effort,” and “keeping an open mind.” At the same time, college instructors believe that incoming-students’ levels of preparation in their content areas has declined.

Subsequently, ACT concludes there are “discrepancies between state standards and what some educators believe is important for college readiness.” This reality presents itself with the Common Core, which has been adopted by 42 states, D.C., four territories, and the Department of Defense Education Activity.

The standards were developed in 2009 as a set of rigorous academic standards in English language arts and mathematics to ensure that high school students would be able to graduate with the skills and knowledge necessary for success in college and beyond.

However, the policy report for the survey finds that among the percentage of high school teachers claiming to be at least slightly familiar with Common Core standards, only 42% believe they are either a “great deal” or “completely” aligned with what college instructors consider as college readiness.


Last year, ACT questioned national academic standards in its policy report, The Condition of College and Career Readiness 2015, when it found the percentage of high school graduates meeting ACT college readiness benchmarks in english language arts and mathematics had declined since 2011. The writers issued a warning:

“We sincerely hope this report will serve as a call to action — or even as a wake-up call — that our nation’s current policies and practices are not having the desired effect of increasing the college and career readiness levels of US high school graduates,” the authors wrote.

ACT’s most recent report appears to shine a spotlight on these concerns.

College Readiness

In its 2015 survey, Achieve Inc., one of the organizations responsible for writing the Common Core state standards, discovered that overall perception of high school graduate readiness among both college instructors and employers had declined since 2004.

The report indicates that of the 767 college instructors from four-year and two-year colleges, universities, and technical institutions, 78% believe public high schools are not doing a good job preparing people for higher education. That same statistic was 65% in 2004. At the same time, nearly half of high school graduates surveyed said there were gaps in their preparation for college.

ACT’s 2016 curriculum report charted a further decline in college readiness among high school graduates. In two previous reports from 2009 and 2012, ACT investigated K-12 curriculum alignment with college instructors’ expectations. In these years, 26% of college instructors surveyed reported their students’ level of preparation was in the top half of the scale. In 2015, that number declined to 16%.


Overall, ACT finds that there are discrepancies between state standards for academic models and what college instructors actually want from their students. Wayne Camara, the senior Vice President of Research at ACT, says discrepancies could be attributed to college instructors’ unfamiliarity with the standards.

“In terms of results from the colleges, I would attribute the differences…[as being] based on a combination of what they see as the principle needs of what college freshman [should know]... and the fact that many college faculty are not tied to or trained in the common core standards,” said Camara.

Within English language arts writing capabilities, there is a general consensus among college instructors, workplaces and high school educators that students ought to be able to write for a variety of purposes.

However, the report finds college instructors appear to value the ability to generate sound ideas in broader contexts more than the ability to analyze source texts and summarize other authors’ ideas — key features of source-based writing, which has become more emphasized in high school curricula than in the past. Source-based writing is a key component of Common Core’s ELA standards, which calls for a movement toward 70% non-fiction informational texts in the classroom by senior year.

Although K-12 educators and college instructors appear to prioritize the same skillsets in reading, the survey points to gaps in preparation. Only half of the college instructors surveyed considered their entering students as being in the top half of the scale for any of the five most prioritized skills: Determining central ideas, identifying important details, drawing conclusions, evaluating evidence and making reasoned judgement.

In mathematics, 80% of K-12 respondents surveyed reported Common Core had been implemented either “a great deal” or “completely” where they teach; however, only 48% of high school teachers said their instruction had actually changed. One explanation for this trend is perception.

The report finds that while about 60% of elementary teachers believe the Common Core standards for mathematics are generally aligned with college instructors’ expectations for college readiness, only about 50% of middle school and high school teachers believe the same.

Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University, helped construct the standards, but he said many of his students are coming into the classroom ill-prepared.

“I see more and more students coming into college having not read very much and not knowing very much. Mention the French revolution and then you get blank stares,” he said.

“We’ve produced students that don’t know much about historical facts. You may know some things about contemporary issues, but if you don't know about the history, then your ability to understand the present is going to be limited.”


Career Readiness

Workforce respondents highly value non-academic capabilities in potential employees. Among the most important qualities sought after by employers are acting honestly and treating others fairly, sustaining effort, getting along with colleagues, and maintaining composure.

According to the ACT report, at or above 70% of the respondents also rated the lack of three non-academic skill areas as most likely or very likely leading to a poor outcome for an employee. These are conscientiousness, problem solving, and critical thinking.

High school educators, particularly in mathematics, appear to merit technology, more so or just as much as employers. Interestingly, though, more than half of the workplaces surveyed also highly ranked the importance of understanding ethical use of information, such as copyright, piracy, and attribution.

While Common Core emphasizes writing abilities, employers responded that the workplace more often uses face-to-face interactions, which requires strong speaking and listening skills. Over 70% of the respondents valued skills like communicating in a knowledgeable manner and logical presentation of information.

A number of features most valued by employers fall under a general umbrella of proper workplace demeanor, the ability by which employees can fairly and conscientiously interact and cooperate with others.

Achieve’s survey from 2015 found that of the 407 employers questioned, 62% of them believed that U.S. public high schools were not doing a good job of preparing students for the workplace. That same statistics was at 38% in 2004. Moreover, more than 80% of employers report at least some gaps in preparedness from high school graduates, while that was 74% about a decade ago.


 Camara says that high school instructors often tend to overlook the types of qualities the survey indicates workplaces are looking for, deferring instead to the principles of rigorous academics.

“Employers value a lot of factors that are non-academic: Critical thinking skills, communication skills skills and teamwork,” he said. “For a lot of those schools feel that it’s not in their curriculum to focus on and they are probably best learned through extracurricular activities, and part-time jobs ... but I do think that educational experiences help shape and improve some of those skills.”

Former ACT CEO Jon Whitmore, in a press release from institution last year, said that there has been little progress on improvement of career readiness, and that this reality poses consequences for the new workforce.

“We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of U.S. high school graduates who won’t earn a two- or four-year college degree because they aren’t academically prepared to do so,” he said.

“In the increasingly competitive job market, where decent jobs are requiring more advanced skills and training, this is a huge problem.”

Recommendations in the classroom

While the survey points to discrepancies, Camara says that it’s still too early to tell whether Common Core standards are actually not working.

“It’s a lot of trial and error, generally it will take three- to five years to see an effect. I think it might be a little premature to see an improvement in the readiness of students,” he said. “I think this is a step in the right direction.”

Camara, who is a proponent of holistic learning of academic and non-academic skills, also notes that a large part of improvement in readiness is up to the teachers.

“It’s important to note that the standards and assessments alone are not going to result in improvements. It’s really about the teachers. The standards are meant to guide the instruction, but it’s really about the quality of the instruction, the curriculum, and the motivation of students.”

ACT’s policy report offers a series of recommendations. These include maintaining rigorous academics in the classroom, developing data sets to track student development and incorporating results into teaching strategies, investments in technology, and more teaching tools for instructors.

Bauerlein says that taking an in-depth look at curriculum is the first step to closing preparation gaps.

“You have to put curriculum at the top of the list. You keep focusing on things like strategy in the classroom, changing the logistic of school choice, and so on. It’s about curriculum, you’ve got to look more seriously at this, and find out which curricula is good for certain populations,” he said.

On larger scale, though, he says that recognizing Camara’s point is important. Looking toward the teachers is really how change will actually occur.  

“Teacher quality is probably the single biggest determinant of success for a child. Turn over money to teacher salaries, not just technology. Provide better working conditions and better salaries.”

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Filed Under: K12