08/27/2013 02:58 pm ET | Updated Oct 27, 2013

Standing Still Means Getting Overrun

Imagine yourself as a middle-aged runner.

You used to be among the best, taking home medals every race. Three decades later, you run as quickly as ever, despite the many challenges life has thrown at you.

You're proud, as you should be. Not many people can maintain their pace for 30 years.

The only problem is that you're now getting lapped by the rest of the world.

This year, as we do every year, ACT issued its Condition of College and Career Readiness report.

In 2013, as in years past, the results were sobering: the majority of America's high school graduates lack the academic skills to be fully prepared for college and career success.

Without diving too deeply into the data, we found that only 39 percent of graduates met at least three of four ACT College Readiness Benchmarks in English, math, reading or science. Even more sobering, 31 percent did not meet the standard for any benchmark.

Without postsecondary-level skills and credentials, young people are likely to struggle to find jobs that can support themselves and their families. They need education beyond high school, ready or not -- and more than half the time, they're not.

For those who continue in school, as they should, a lack of preparedness translates into more remedial classes, lower graduation rates, more years in school, more expense, and more chances for dreams to be derailed.

Failing to achieve college and career readiness means struggling not only in the classroom, but in life.

We simply need to do better, for our students and for our country, because the rest of the world is not standing still.

According to a 2012 report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 30 years ago the United States led the world in its proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds earning the equivalent of a high school diploma.

Over the past three decades, we've slipped a point, from 90 to 89 percent -- and we slipped in the OECD rankings from first to 11th.

We're not doing that much worse. The rest of the world is doing that much better.

Thirty years ago, we were among the handful of nations where 40 percent or more of 25-to-34 year olds had completed college or vocational education, ranking third on that measure. Today, we rank 14th.

We increased our performance by a percentage point, from 41 to 42 percent. Korea quintupled its number, from 13 to 65 percent, over the same period.

Standing still means getting overrun.

Some will argue that not every high school graduate needs to develop the academic skills necessary to succeed in college or career, but I suspect few hold such limited aspirations for their own children.

As President Obama has emphasized, college is expensive -- and that's especially true for students who are underprepared. "Catching up" in college often translates into remedial courses for which tuition is charged, but that generally don't count toward a degree. One of the best ways to keep college costs down is to earn a bachelor's degree in four years, not five or six.

According to the Readiness Matters report we issued earlier this year, 75 percent of college students who meet all four ACT Benchmarks graduate from college within six years of their initial enrollment, while those who meet zero benchmarks graduate at a 44 percent rate.

Keeping up with the pace -- much less setting it -- will not be easy, but as a country we are already taking important steps toward success.

Most of our states have adopted the Common Core State Standards, which are consistent with international benchmarks for rigor. The few that haven't are focused on other improved standards.

Are the new standards hard? Yes. Will we experience some discomfort as we gear up to meet them? Yes. Can we get the job done if we literally put our minds to it? Absolutely.

At ACT, we're developing Common Core-consistent solutions that will not only measure what students are learning, but help them learn. Starting next year we'll be working with students as young as eight years old. For students to succeed as high schoolers, they need to start building their mental muscles many years before that -- just as their international peers are doing.

As a country, we've sustained our speed, and there's something to be said for that. However, in too many cases the world is passing us like we're standing still -- which, as a statistical reality, we are.

Thirty-nine percent college readiness isn't good enough. We must aspire to more than stability.
We need to pick up the pace, or get used to life in the slow lane.

Jon Whitmore is CEO of ACT, a global nonprofit organization whose mission is "Helping people achieve education and workplace success."