05/24/2013 01:49 pm ET Updated Jul 24, 2013

Answer to a Tough Question

For as long as there have been schools, each fall teachers have probably looked at the uneven readiness of their new students, shaken their heads, and quietly wondered to themselves, "What were those other teachers thinking?"

ACT's National Curriculum Survey policy report was recently released, and describes that sentiment in stark statistical terms. While 89 percent of high school educators believe they have prepared their graduates for success, only 25 percent of college educators agree their incoming students are "well" or "very well" prepared for college-level work in their content areas.

That's a dramatic difference, but perhaps not so surprising.

Even in the earliest grades, kindergarten teachers express concerns that too many five-year-olds arrive at school unready to learn--they don't know their ABCs, how to count to 10, or even how to hold a book. In other words, on Day 1 they're already behind.

By fourth grade, if students are still "learning to read" rather than "reading to learn," the teachers have bigger problems. The third grade teachers may have made heroic efforts, but the fourth grade teachers are still saying to themselves, "These kids just aren't ready."

The same is true for the transitions from elementary to middle school, middle to high school, high school to college (as documented by the 89-to-25 percent difference of opinion), and even college to career. Employers--many of whom desperately need qualified workers--may see transcripts loaded with impressive GPAs, but few will hire applicants without rigorous interviews, work samples, or independent validations of workforce readiness.

ACT's policy report suggests three ways educators can make these transitions smoother, and the perceptual disconnects smaller.

First, ensure all parties are working toward the same goals. The Common Core State Standards align educators toward international-class standards of readiness. If a high school thinks it should be teaching "A," but a college expects "B," no matter how well the teachers teach the professors are still going to be disappointed. Standards need to be aligned on the front end.

Second, foster collaboration so curricula and classroom materials reflect the skills needed across the Kindergarten through Career Continuum. "P-20 councils" that include stakeholders from preschool ("P") through 12th grade, postsecondary institutions ("16th grade"), and graduate school ("20th grade"), can help ensure students master the most important skills at each step along their educational journeys.

Third, states and schools should do what they can to invest in the infrastructure necessary to enable the next generation of assessments. Innovative assessments will provide teachers, parents and students meaningful and immediate results that can tell richer stories, and provide greater insights, than are possible today--and more importantly, create millions more happy endings to those stories each year.

The answer to the question posed at the beginning of this piece, "What were those other teachers thinking?" may be as simple as "Something different"--and we can fix that.

By working toward common standards, collaborating with peers in different classrooms and even different campuses, investing in technology that can support these aligned efforts, and by measuring progress on a consistent basis, there will not only be fewer surprises--but more success.

That's an answer we can all agree on.

Jon Whitmore is CEO of ACT, a global not-for-profit organization whose mission is "Helping people achieve education and workplace success."