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October 20, 2018

3/9/2016 2:50:00 PM
Editorial: We Urge the D202 Board to Set High Expectations in Defining 'College Readiness'

The District 202 School Board is discussing new five-year goals for the District. One goal focuses on academic achievement, and two important issues are how the Board will define what it means to be college ready and how the Board will measure whether Evanston Township High School is preparing all of our children to be successful in college.

One key question is whether the Board will aim at preparing students to obtain a C or to obtain a B or higher in freshman year of college. This decision should be made in the context of grading practices in four-year colleges, where 77% of the grades given are As and Bs. We encourage the Board to aim at preparing students to do at least B-level work in college.
Some Background

The District previously reported the percentage of students who met the ACT’s college readiness benchmarks for English and math on the ACT test. The ACT’s benchmarks are set at a score where a student has a 50% chance of earning a B or higher in a related course in freshman year of college. The ACT chose to align its benchmarks to a B because “grades of A and B are viewed as successes, while a grade of C is viewed as satisfactory or ‘just getting by.’” [1]

 On Feb. 11, the Illinois State Board of Education said it is switching from administering the ACT to the SAT, which is owned by the College Board. It thus appears that ETHS will no longer be able to use the ACT to measure college readiness.

Pete Bavis, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction at ETHS, told the RoundTable, “The College Board stresses, ‘Outcomes based solely on one predictor (i.e., test scores or grades) have consistently proven to be inferior to prediction models that employ multiple predictors’ and ‘to question the efficacy of any college readiness models based solely on test scores.’”

The College Board’s comments quoted by Dr. Bavis appear in a report that recommends that three metrics be used to measure college readiness: 1) a score of 1550 on the SAT; 2) a high school grade point average (GPA) of 3.33 (a B+); and 3) a score of 10 on an Academic Score Index that takes into account the number of rigorous courses taken by a student, including honors courses, Advanced Placement Courses, Dual Enrollment, and Algebra II and higher math courses. The College Board said that each of these three metrics must be met for a student to be viewed as being college ready, which it defined at that time as having a 65% probability of obtaining a GPA of B- (a 2.67) in freshman year of college. [2]

Rather than using the College Board’s metrics, Dr. Bavis told the RoundTable the administration “is looking at multiple measures for college and career readiness growing out of the Redefining Ready work being done by the American Association for School Administrators (AASA).”

A memo prepared by Dr. Bavis lists the indicators for college readiness that have been developed by the Redefining Ready group. According to Redefining Ready: 

Students are viewed as being college ready if they have a high school GPA of 2.8 out of a possible 4.0, and they meet any one of the following criteria:

• Advanced Placement Exam (3+)

• Advanced Placement Course (C or better)

• Dual Credit College English and/or Math (C or better)

• Developmental English and/or Math (C or better)

• Algebra II (C or better)

• International Baccalaureate Exam (4+)

• College Readiness Placement Assessment:

 – ACT English (18), Reading (22), Science (23), Math (22);

 – SAT Exam Math (TBD), Reading and Writing (TBD).

Redefining Ready’s website identifies only one School Board that has supported its criteria, namely School District 214 in Arlington Heights, which is apparently spearheading the effort. About 50 superintendents are listed as supporters.

District 202 Superintendent Eric Witherspoon told the RoundTable that the administration has not yet recommended measures of college readiness to the School Board. “We are in the process of examining the Redefining Ready metrics as they relate to outcomes for ETHS students. With 84% of our ETHS students attending college one year after graduation, we have a great deal of data that informs us about what prepares ETHS students for college.” He added that once administrators have completed their analysis and validated measures, they would share “ETHS-specific measures with the Board.”

While a recommendation has not yet been made, we are offering our thoughts on Redefining Ready’s criteria in the context of high school students nationally. We think that Redefining Ready’s proposed criteria set a very low bar, one that we think is aimed at achieving about a 2.0 (or a “C”) in freshman year of college. In light of rampant grade inflation, a C at the college level is at best just getting by.
College Grading Practices

An extensive study of grading practices at more than 135 four-year colleges with more than 1.5 million students found that 43% of the grades given were As, 33.8% were Bs, 14.9% were Cs, 4.1% were Ds, and 4.2% were Fs. [3] 

Thus, about 77% of the grades in college are As and Bs. A grade of C, which used to be an average grade, is now in the bottom quartile.

Other data are consistent. An ACT study found that 84% of the freshman who attended 192 four-year colleges had a GPA of 2.0 (a “C” average) or higher. That puts a freshman year GPA of 2.0 at the 16th percentile. [4]

Other studies indicate that the average GPA for freshman year of college was 2.93 [2] and that 52% of the freshmen who attended four-year colleges had a GPA of 3.0 or higher. [4]

Aiming for a GPA of 2.0 (a C average) in college is thus setting very low expectations.

A High School GPA of 2.8

Redefining Ready’s primary criterion for college readiness is obtaining a GPA of 2.8 in high school. This sets low expectations because, we think, it aims for C-level work in college. Here is some data that we rely on:

• An ACT study found that students who had a GPA of 2.8 in high school have about a 70% probability of achieving a GPA of 2.0 (a C average) or higher in freshman year of college, but they have only a 20% chance of achieving a GPA of 3.0 (a B average). In order to have a 50% probability of obtaining a GPA of 3.0 in freshman year of college, students would need to have a high school GPA of 3.4. [4]

• As previously noted, the College Board concluded that a student needed a high school GPA of 3.33 to have a 65% probability of obtaining a GPA of 2.67 (or a B- average) in freshman year college. [2] 

• The average high school GPA was 3.29 for students who took the ACT in 2011. [5] The average was 3.39 for students who took the SAT in 2015. [6]

A high school GPA of 2.8 is thus significantly below the average GPA of students who take the ACT and the SAT; it is significantly below the 3.4 needed to predict a 50% probability of obtaining a 3.0 (a B average) in college; and it is significantly below the 3.33 needed to predict a 65% probability of obtaining a 2.67 (a B- average) in freshman year of college.

Using a high school GPA of 2.8 to indicate college readiness is way too low.

The SAT’s New Benchmarks

Students’ scores on the SAT should be a separate element of the metrics of college readiness, and not relegated to a list of seven criteria, where only one of the seven must be met.

A student’s scores on the SAT provide a standardized, independent measure of the student’s academic preparation for college. While most studies show that a student’s high school GPA is a better predictor of how a student will do in college than his or her score on the SAT, the margin of difference is small. And studies conclude that using both is best.

Here, it is important to recognize that we are not urging that SAT scores be used in deciding whether to admit an individual student into college. We are proposing that the scores be used as an additional metric to assess whether District 202 is preparing our children academically for the rigors of college. When hundreds of students’ individual scores are aggregated, they provide a very reliable measure of whether a school district is preparing its students for success in college.

While we are urging in this editorial that the SAT be used as one metric to measure college readiness, we are concerned that the College Board is poised to significantly lower its benchmark scores that indicate college readiness.

In 2011, the College Board identified benchmark scores that indicated college readiness for the SAT. The benchmarks corresponded to a 65% probability of getting a GPA or a grade of 2.7 (a B-) in freshman year of college. [7] 

The College Board has recently revised the SAT, and the new version is being given this spring. A representative of the College Board told the RoundTable that instead of selecting a benchmark score on the new tests that predict a 65% chance of getting a B- in freshman year of college, the College Board was adopting a new standard, namely a 75% chance of obtaining a C in freshman year of college. The College Board told the RoundTable it is using a C because it is "interpreted as 'satisfactory' in undergraduate institutions."

The change is huge. A 2012 study by the College Board shows that much lower SAT scores are needed to have a 75% chance of getting a C, than to have a 65% chance of getting a B-, or a 50% of getting a B. [8]

 Although asked, the College Board did not tell the RoundTable what the new benchmark scores would be for the SAT or their percentile ranks. But it indicated that because the "vast majority of students" who take literature and social sciences courses in freshman year receive a C or above, the vast majority of students will meet the SATs new college readiness benchmarks in those subjects. 

Significantly, the newly adopted college readiness benchmark scores for the PSAT given to 11th-graders are set at about the 18th percentile for evidence-based reading and writing, and at the 55th percentile for math. [9]

All this signals that the reading and writing benchmarks for the SAT will be set very low, and that the benchmarks for math will be significantly lower than those set in 2011.


In the last several years, ETHS has made good progress by increasing many students’ access to rigorous courses through the freshman earned honors program, and by increasing the percentage of students taking honors classes and advanced placement classes. These are all positive steps forward. We urge the District 202 School Board not to step backward by adopting targets that are aimed at preparing students to minimally get by in college.

We urge the Board to set three academic criteria for college readiness and to annually report the percentage of students, by subgroup, who meet the criteria. The critera are: 1) that students obtain a score on the SAT that gives them a 50% probability of obtaining a B in freshman year of college or a 65% chance of getting a B-; 2) that students have a high school GPA of 3.4; and 3) that students demonstrate they have taken rigorous course work, not just one course, but multiple courses, using an index along the lines outlined in SAT Report 2010-3.

We support additional non-academic criteria that indicate college and life readiness.


1. “Updating the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks,” ACT Report 2013(6)

2. “The Development of Multidimensional College Readiness Index,” (SAT Report 2010-3), by Jeff Allen.

3. “Where A is Ordinary: The Evolution of American College and University Grading 1940-2009” (2012) by Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy.

4. “Usefulness of High School Average and ACT Scores in Making College Admission Decisions,” by Richard Sawyer. (ACT Report 2010-2).

5. “High School Grade Inflation from 2004 to 2011,” by Qian Zhang and Edgar Sanchez, ACT Report 2013(3)

6. “SAT 2015 Total Group Profile Report”

7. “SAT Benchmarks,” (SAT Report 2011-5)

8. “SAT Content Area Benchmarks: An Analysis …” by Jeffrey N. Wyatt, et al (SAT Report 2012-08-31

9. “PSAT/NMSQT, Understanding Scores 2015.”


Related Stories:
• Community Gives Feedback on District Goals at Workshop

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