Is there a knowledge gap between high school and college?

College prep in high school

Book Display: Niles West High School 50th Anniversary (Photo credit: Skokie Public Library)

During the college application process, you probably spent a lot of time thinking about which college you liked best, which one you could afford, and which one had the programs you were interested in. You also probably worried whether your college of choice would accept you, whether your grades were good enough, or whether you had done enough extracurriculars. But did you think or worry about if your high school curriculum had prepared you for college? Probably not. But the most recent ACT National Curriculum Survey® found that there continues to be a big knowledge gap between high school teachers and college instructors as to how prepared our nation’s high school students are for college.

Survey says

The ACT National Curriculum Survey is a nationwide survey conducted every three to five years. It evaluates what high school students should know in the areas of English, math, reading and science to be able to handle college-level course work. The results are then used to update academic standards in our nation’s K-12 classrooms. According to the U.S. News & World Report university directory website in Catherine Groux’s April 22, 2013, post “High School, College Professors Disagree on Student Preparedness,” the 2012 Survey found that high school teachers and college professors are not in agreement on how well prepared U.S. students are for college.

Groux writes: “While 89% of high school teachers said they consider their students to be either ‘well’ or ‘very well’ prepared for college coursework, only 26% of postsecondary instructors said they feel their incoming students are either ‘well’ or ‘very well’ prepared for their freshman-year classes.”

What it means

Does it matter if high school students aren’t as prepared as college professors would like? Is that knowledge gap just something that universities need to accept? Will incoming students just have to work a bit harder to catch up? Dayna Straehley posted on April 27, 2013, for the Press-Enterprise.comEducation: ACT says high school, college expectations don’t match” that there are bigger issues at stake than simply a matter of lowering expectations or extra study time.

Increasingly ACT officials and educators are worried that a gap in academic skills, particularly in subjects such as English communication and mathematical reasoning on par with Algebra 2, are impacting the job potential for students in today’s high-tech workplaces, even in factory and assembly line situations. There are also broader concerns, according to ACT, that “a lack of alignment between high school and college curricula that could be contributing to the nation’s college and career readiness problem.” Many also believe that this knowledge gap is leading to the U.S.’s lower rates of college graduates. According to a Harvard Graduate School of Education survey conducted in 2011, only 56% of college students graduated in six years with a bachelor’s degree.

The solution

ACT surveys for several years have shown that the knowledge gap is a problem for students. The key revolves around greater collaboration between secondary schools and institutions of higher learning. “When high school teachers believe their students are well prepared for college-level courses, but colleges disagree, we have a problem,” said Jon Erickson, ACT’s president of education.

The 2012 ACT survey indicated that most teachers support any efforts to bring K-12 standards in alignment with what will make students the most college-ready and career-ready. Greater computer access is an important first step to “effectively administer new assessments aligned to college- and career-ready standards” according to the ACT survey results.

For more on our nation’s secondary education system and the central issues surrounding today’s classrooms, “Teaching, Learning and the Curriculum in Secondary Schools: A Reader” is available on to give you more insight into the issues surrounding high school education.

Did your high school properly prepare you for your college experience? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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1 reply
  1. Ken Houston says:

    Please, please, PLEASE…ban, eradicate, destroy multiple choice testing for soft subject such as English, History and Sociology. Ticking boxes a – d does not a good writer make. Get back to writing and thinking analytically on the page.


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