08/22/2012 02:34 pm ET Updated Oct 22, 2012

The Stopwatch Doesn't Lie

Imagine an Olympiad... which American basketball players had to take themselves out of the game, exhausted and down by a dozen points, minutes after the opening tipoff. which our 1500-meter runners made three trips around the track before being lapped by faster runners from around the world. which our decathletes asked the officials to reduce the number of events because 10 "was just too difficult."

America wouldn't stand for it. As a nation, we would take whatever measures necessary to restore our competitiveness on the global stage.

But in the academic arena, Americans are once again being trounced by their peers. As sports fans, we wouldn't put up with three of five basketball players not knowing their plays, but as citizens, we seem to have little outrage or despair over similar performance in our nation's classrooms.

According to ACT's just-released report, The Condition of College and Career Readiness 2012, more than 60 percent of graduating high school students are at risk of not succeeding in college or career. ACT tested 52 percent of our nation's seniors in English, mathematics, reading and science and, no matter how you look at the numbers, they show most students simply aren't keeping up.

More than a quarter (28 percent) of those we tested failed to meet ACT's College Readiness Benchmarks in any of the four subjects listed above, which means they are likely to struggle in first-year college courses in all of those areas. By contrast, only 25 percent of students met all four benchmarks, the threshold signifying they are fully prepared for success in all core subject areas.

ACT aligns its assessments with rigorous global standards such as PISA, the Programme for International Student Assessment, so the results would be similar no matter where the tests were taken.

I'm not a track coach, but if I were, my first step in creating a team of world-class runners would be to assemble my athletes and tell it to them straight.

"To win gold medals," I'd say, "it's going to require working up a sweat on a daily basis, and sweating hard every day for years on end. It means eating right, getting your sleep, and listening to your coach. You may not like what I have to say, but I'm telling you the truth, because I want you to win."

I'd have a stopwatch, checking regularly to see if my runners were getting faster and evaluating how their times ranked against their fleetest competition.

At ACT, our stopwatches take the form of tests. By checking the performance of millions of students each year, we know not only how fast they're going, but also how they stack up against their competition.

If I were the coach for America's students, I'd tell it to them straight, also.

"Team, more than half of you are not ready to compete. You're going against the best in the world, but unless you put in the work, even when it's uncomfortable or inconvenient, you are going to get lapped. Your competition doesn't care where you're from, and neither do the officials. The question is: Do you want gold, or are you okay with 26th place? Because that's where you're going to finish if things don't change."

"You may not always like what they have to say, but if you want to win, listen to your teachers; they desperately want you to be successful. Listen to your parents or caregivers; they love you more than anyone else in the world."

"And, just as athletes must assess their progress and adjust their workouts accordingly, you must listen to -- and act on -- the insights that come from aligned assessments. Because the stopwatch doesn't lie."

As a nation, we can make a difference in our students' academic performance. We can try different teaching methods to find those that work best for different students. But we must never compromise our standards. Our work has to begin when our children are young, and we must provide honest information at every step along the way, because when the real race begins -- make no mistake -- if the rest of the world can lap us, they will.

The 2012 Olympics are over, but our ongoing and more important job is to prepare millions of young Americans for lifetimes of education and workplace success.

As we begin a new school year, I encourage each of us to dream of the United States winning the team all-around for academic performance -- and then get to work.