“I must have taken the ACT seven or eight times.”

Hailey, a bubbly former cheerleader who graduated fourth in her class from her central Louisiana high school, let out a pained chuckle still heavy with disbelief.

She’d set her eyes on scoring a 20 or higher, the score she needed to gain admission to an in-state university — and access to the coveted TOPS scholarship to supplement what little her family, like so many others in her rural community, could contribute to college dreams.

The first time Hailey took the ACT, she scored a 19 out of 36.

She was shocked. After all, she’d been a nearly straight-A student, aside from a hiccup in ninth grade for which she still hadn’t forgiven herself.

There was a lot on the test that didn’t look familiar to her, Hailey admitted. Still, she’d left feeling the bold confidence of a student who had always been praised in school.

Determined, she signed up to retake it. “I was like, okay, that was my first time. I’m at 19, I’m okay. I just need a 20.”

Eighteen. Her parents encouraged her to take the ACT as many times as it took.

“It would drop, like, a point, and then it would go back up to a 19. Then it would drop, like, two points. And then it’d stay at a 19,” Hailey said. “Finally, I’m like, ‘Dad, I can’t. Like, it’s just not gonna go anywhere.’”

Still resolute on getting to college, Hailey made her way to a nearby satellite campus of one of the state universities, where, despite not having the ACT score or TOPS scholarship she needed, she was able to co-enroll in courses through a partnership with the local junior college.

Four months into her studies there, Hailey reflected on the disparity between the preparation she received in K-12 and the preparation she was now learning she needed.

“I don’t think that I was really taught from my school — like, the education, I don’t know — I guess it wasn’t that high.”

Like so many young people I’ve talked with over the years, in small town and big city schools alike, Hailey described teachers who cared, but who in retrospect didn’t always challenge students much, often assigning work more weighty in volume than in substance. She talked about not being graded very hard on her work, and not being offered the higher level courses during her junior and senior years she now knows could have helped her.

“I think they wanted us to graduate. I just think they didn’t ever really push us like we needed for what came after that.”

Behind the most recent ACT scores — which are punctuated by alarming gaps in college readiness across student groups — are thousands of stories like Hailey’s: Students who did everything they were told in school, who played by the rules, and who were made to believe that would get them where they wanted to go — only to find themselves unprepared, not because of any decision they made about what to learn, but because of what educators decided to teach them.