Remember the infamous “look to your
left, look to your right, one of you won’t be here next
year” spiel the first day of college? Chances are that at
least one of you really wasn’t meant to be in that

Sowmya Krishnamurthy

That’s according to a new report by ACT Inc., the
nonprofit company best known for its scholastic entrance exams. The
Crisis at the Core: Preparing All Students for College and Work
study released Oct. 14 cites a mere 22 percent of 1.2 million high
school graduates who took the exam, about 40 percent of the total
number of 2004 high school grads, are ready for college coursework
in math, science and English. This number is based upon the ACT
benchmark that a student is likely to earn a grade of C or higher
in college if she receives a score of 18 in English, 22 in math and
24 in science. The scores are out of a possible 36.

The report attributes the lack of competency to the fact that
fewer and fewer students are taking the rigorous suggested course
load of four years of English and three years each of science,
math, and social studies during high school.

And the results are very apparent on campus. Even at one of the
top-rated universities in the country, I have seen countless
occasions of students with sub-par knowledge of the basics. Perhaps
presumptuous, but college should not be the first place where one
learns how to “cut and paste” in Microsoft Word or
divide fractions without a calculator.

As a product of public schooling, I have seen firsthand where
such trouble stems from. Although my own Kalamazoo Central High was
in the midst of increasing academic requirements, it was possible
to graduate with no more math knowledge than basic geometry,
ironically insufficient for ACT testing — and only a ninth
grade reading proficiency. Instead of tightening standards so that
a degree actually correlated to something meaningful, my high
school had a tendency to teach to the “lowest common
denominator.” Numerically and politically this makes sense,
because few people would be willing to fund a school from which
their own children might not graduate. But handing out diplomas is
just as, if not more detrimental, than a few irate taxpayers.

Low standards are infectious. Because degrees were essentially
certain, the majority of my class was lackadaisical and did just
enough to “get by.” Even inherently talented students,
who perhaps required extra impetus to succeed, were victim to the
slump of the masses. Few such as me, who had external motivating
factors like parents or mentors, were resigned to enrolling in
accelerated programs outside high school via the Kalamazoo Area
Math and Science Center or Western Michigan University. It was the
training gained at those venues that made an impact. Statistically,
we attained better standardized test scores, attend more
competitive colleges and have a higher likelihood of college
graduation. If I had remained inside Kalamazoo Central’s
vegetative boundaries, there’s no doubt that success at the
University would have been a far more difficult feat.

Though I was fortunate to have additional college-prep
resources, it is naïve to expect the average person to possess
the necessary financial resources or drive to go beyond the
mandatory. At a time when numerous public schools are underfunded
and short-staffed, with a marked presence along racial and
socioeconomic lines, we cannot let success boil down to the
“haves” versus the “have-nots.”

Standards must be toughened so that a high school degree, which
for many Americans denotes the end of their education, has
magnitude. Does this suggest the compulsory teaching of
astrophysics and differential equations? Perhaps, but the malaise
facing schools is complex, and cannot be ameliorated with rigorous
courses or stop-gap vouchers alone. The heart of the problem lies
in our attitude toward education. Education must be given the same
worth financially and mentally that is bestowed on materialism,
physical looks or say, a dubious war in Iraq. Education, especially
at no cost, is a privilege in most of the world. We cannot take
this gift for granted nor let it decay into mediocrity.


Krishnamurthy can be reached at

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