What is College Readiness?

If you’re new to the conversation about “college readiness,” you might suppose that preparedness would be measured in multiple ways. Of course, many students who can score well on tests lack the personal and social skills necessary to succeed in college. On the other hand, some students struggle on standardized tests, but perhaps they could demonstrate readiness for college through grades, effort and teacher recommendation.


According to the City University of New York (CUNY), the arbiters of college readiness for New York City public schools, it is much simpler than that. From the Academics section of CUNY’s website:

Students are considered proficient in reading and writing if they can document any one of the following:

  • SAT I verbal score of 480 or higher or critical reading score of 480 or higher
  • ACT English score of 20 or higher
  • N.Y. State English Regents score of 75 or higher
  • CUNY Assessment Tests:
    • Reading Test score of 70 or higher and Writing Test score of 56 or higher.

My school offers students college courses, at a CUNY school, as soon as they demonstrate proficiency by these standards, mostly Regents results. Lest you assume mathematics has more reasonable requirements, that discipline also publishes a set of scores that apparently correlate to “readiness” in a sense. Typically, students need to score an 80 on any math Regents exam, and earn credits in the other courses that offer Regents–algebra 1+2 and geometry. Look at the link above for detailed requirements for the different schools.

These scores, used as a gatekeeper for credit-bearing courses, are inevitably arbitrary. Although the assessment experts could (and have) explain how they were determined, scores on standardized tests that change regularly cant possibly be consistent measures of something as nebulous as college readiness. In fact, the foremost experts in assessment identified these scores after a study by Dan Koretz of Harvard University. This was a way to halt the score inflation that skyrocketed under former chancellor Joel Klein and Mayor Bloomberg, allowing them to claim credit for score increases each and every year of the administration.

Unfortunately, the tests remain fairly meaningless. While a score of 80 on a math Regents may indeed predict initial success in a college math course (Koretz and his team say C+), there is little predictive value beyond the first course. Likewise, the Internet masses agree that the Regents are a poor indicator of college readiness. Oh, and as an aside, there’s quite a bit of debate over the fairness of any standardized tests. More importantly, college readiness remains a proxy for income, demographics and geography.

The Coalition for Educational Justice published an extremely valuable map of college readiness throughout the five boroughs. East New York, one of the poorer areas of Brooklyn and where many of my students reside, graduates 12% of students ready for college. Park Slope, an upper class neighborhood about 2 miles away, is at 48%. Across the city, the numbers are fairly predictable. Is college readiness simply a proxy for wealth? Zip code?

The school where I work was founded to remedy this apparent inequity in the education provided for our youth. Our staff meets regularly with college professors to map requirements for their courses back to our instruction at the high school level, meaning we have more information than most about what college readiness truly means. Yet, due to the rigid proficiency requirements linked above, students are not deemed “college ready” until they meet the test score benchmarks.

Before I began teaching, that requirement simply felt wrong to me…but I couldn’t define why or how. As a student, I had an easy time with tests and exams, so I rarely spent much time considering the impact of these clumsy instruments on students who do not perform well. But now, they’re sitting in front of me. Since we know, from reliable social science, that high-stakes standardized tests have unfair outcomes for minority, poor and ELL students (e.g. HeubertFleming & Garcia, Linn), it seems puzzling that we still insist on the numbers. While NYC is home to an extremely diverse population, very few Black and minority students ever attain “college readiness” by these measures; on the other hand, my short time in a school tells me that, given a real opportunity, these kids are extraordinarily capable.