“College and career readiness,” for all students has become a national, state, and district benchmark in recent years and shows no signs of disappearing any time soon.  Despite the push from every level of government, there has not been much progress, and I contend two investments are critically necessary if we hope to see growth in this area.  First, however, what does it mean to be college and career ready?

One of the most common measures of college readiness is the American College Testing (ACT) benchmark scores.  ACT defines college readiness benchmark score as: “the minimum score needed on an ACT subject-area test to indicate a 50% chance of obtaining a B or higher or about a 75% chance of obtaining a C or higher in the corresponding credit-bearing college courses, which include English Composition, Algebra, Social Science, Biology and STEM. These scores were empirically derived based on the actual performance of students in college.” Of 36 total possible points, the benchmark scores are 18 for English, 22 for Algebra, 22 for Social Science, 23 for Biology, and 26 for STEM.  During the last 5 years, the number of students taking the ACT has increased 12.8% to over 2,000,000 students. While the average ACT scores in English, Reading, and Science increased slightly, and the Mathematics average dropped slightly, the percentage of students “college ready” in each category and in all 4 areas has dropped or stabilized. According to the 2017 ACT report the percentage of students college ready in each particular subject are: English 61%, Mathematics 41%, Reading 47%, and Science 37%.  39% of students met 3 of 4 benchmarks and 27% met all four benchmarks. 70% enroll in second year and 57% complete college in six years.  A lesser known statistic is that 47% of community college students drop out early.   While there are no common measures of what constitutes career readiness, community college completion of an Associates Degree or program certification is as good a measure as any so the fact that nearly half the students leave is not a good sign.

What these numbers tell us is that there is more to college readiness and college completion than ACT scores AND that the education system needs to do more to increase college and community college completion rates as well as be sure students are career ready.  By career ready, I mean more than community college completion because our job as educators really needs to be to prepare students for careers that do not yet exist. I have no doubt that Ava, our granddaughter “graduating” from kindergarten this month with a zeal for learning, will have a career two decades down the line that we cannot even imagine now.  

So how do we ensure students are college and career ready?  ACT suggests five ways:

  • Providing access for all students to take the act:
  • Making core curriculum a priority:
  • Making sure students are taking the right kinds of course
  • Evaluating rigor of courses
  • Plan guidance activities based on students’ career and college aspirations


These may be all well and good, but if we wait until high school, we have waited far too long. From an extensive body of research as well as my professional and personal experience, our best investment in learning is in the preschool and primary years.  

Early Childhood and Primary Education

A quality early childhood education is linked to success later on in life because it sets the foundation for a child’s educational career.

Research has linked preschool to gains on cognitive tests; improvements in social and emotional development; as well as improvements in school success, including less grade repetition, less special education placement, and increased high school graduation. These data cannot be ignored. Three and four year olds are experiencing such rapid brain development that we have a responsibility to take advantage of that! Young children are eager to learn and by indulging them, educators are not only setting learners off on the right foot, they are helping setting up society for success.

Likewise, success in reading at the third grade level in third grade is highly correlated with ACT scores.  We must invest more financial and human resources in the critical first years of school to be sure that students have the foundational skills in reading, writing and mathematics – yes that includes fluency in reading, redoubled attention to vocabulary development, writing complete sentences, and mastering automaticity in fact families – while still allowing AMPLE play time and student choice (see below).  While it may seem counterintuitive, it is far more effective, in terms of outcomes and costs, to ensure college and career readiness by focusing on the earliest years in schools.

Holistic Instruction and Performance Assessment

When a school is focused solely on test scores, students’ college and career readiness is often negatively affected. When schools are put under pressure to improve test scores, teachers often revise their curricula to focus on the exam. When students are not given agency; when they do not have time to explore, inquire, discover; when they do not have time to solve their own problems; when they do not have time to collaborate; when they do not have time to move and to play; and when they do not feel connected or like they belong, they disengage in learning.  Being ready for college and career means that we must teach our students to be both independent and collaborative, to be resilient and rugged, to be thinkers and doers; to listen and speak thoughtfully; and to be kind and compassionate. To be accomplished in these “people skills” is truly to be college and career ready. If we do not allow teachers to pursue a holistic teaching approach we are doing a disservice to our children.  They may be able to meet ACT benchmarks, but they will not have the skills needed to handle setbacks at community college, solve problems in the workplace, pursue field work in college, be comfortable with ambiguity, listen before acting, and experience the joy of learning. When teachers are focused on test prep, there are lower academic expectations for their students which leads to a lack of academic rigor. Along with that comes poor social support from the teaching staff and student disengagement.  College and career readiness requires a balance of the and academic rigor ACT proposes with caring teachers whose instruction is based in inquiry, who realize that deep conceptual learning of a small number of principles through discovery, collaboration, problem-solving and play, is far better than covering a full curriculum.  

Moreover, in college and career, your success depends far more on what you produce that what knowledge you can recall. Therefore, assessment need to balance exam preparation with authentic performance based, product producing experiences.  

While many obstacles can interfere with a student being prepared for life after high school, two stand out among the others. When a student does not have a solid early childhood education, and/or their schooling is focused on test scores and academics, that student suffers and is not fully ready for a career or college.