Challenges to Achieving College and Career Readiness: Definitions, Alignment and Measurement

The National High School Center at the American Institutes for Research, in collaboration with the American Youth Policy Forum and the Educational Policy Improvement Center, hosted an invitation-only “College and Career Readiness Symposium: The Role of Technical Assistance in Actualizing College and Career Readiness,” in Washington, D.C., on April 24, 2012. During the Symposium, presenters and participants discussed several challenges to achieving college and career readiness. Drawing on notes from the event, National High School Center staff identified the following common challenges.

Defining College and Career Readiness
One of the most basic concerns discussed during the Symposium was the challenge of defining college and career readiness (CCR). The goal of CCR has been lauded by states across the country, but it is unclear how they each define the term. Dr. David Conley, a national expert on CCR and the CEO of the Educational Policy Improvement Center, suggested that policymakers have a tendency to oversimplify, which may obscure the complex topic. Others suggested that states also need to determine how to define their end goal: should students really be prepared for both college and career, or should they be prepared for college then career, or should they be prepared for college or career?

In his keynote speech, Dr. Conley described a framework for CCR. For a student to be college and career ready, Conley said, students must be able to “think, know, act and go.” In other words, they should have developed cognitive strategies (e.g. problem solving, inquisitiveness, precision/accuracy, interpretation, reasoning, research, and intellectual openness), content knowledge (e.g. writing and algebraic concepts and key content knowledge from core subjects), academic behaviors (e.g. self-monitoring and studying skills) and contextual skills and awareness (e.g. awareness of college admissions processes and culture, college-level academic expectations, tuition and financial aid).

Implications: Don’t assume that everyone agrees on the definition of CCR. Engage multiple stakeholders and use resources to develop a definition or framework of CCR that is appropriate for the site, one that includes the multiple facets of CCR. Also, be aware that CCR is not purely academic; for students to be successful in college and careers, they need to draw upon a wide range of additional behaviors and skills as well.

Aligning CCR with the Common Core State Standards
Another challenge participants noted was determining how CCR aligns with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). On the one hand, participants said, CCSS is an excellent starting point in achieving CCR. The CCSS were designed to ensure that students meet rigorous benchmarks in literacy and math that prepare them for college and career. States have invested heavily in developing and adopting these new standards and any movement towards CCR should not ignore these standards and recreate the wheel. However, the standards do not address other competencies that contribute to college and career readiness, including proficiency in other academic content areas (e.g. science, history, art), career planning and goal setting, and resilience. States may be tempted to ignore other competencies that are not included in the standards and inaccurately conflate success on standards with CCR. Policymakers may be further tempted to measure CCR using assessments designed by the consortia, who are charged with developing assessments aligned with the CCSS. Policymakers may legislate the use of consortia assessments as measures of CCR, despite the reality that these assessments really only measure one aspect of CCR.

Implications: CCSS, or other college and career ready standards, are an important part of CCR, but they are not enough on their own. Policymakers and administrators should see the CCSS as part of a plan to get all students ready, and develop plans to address other critical competencies.

Measuring CCR
If the consortia assessments are not valid measurements of CCR, how should it be measured? How can it be measured if there is not a clear definition of the term? Several Symposium participants voiced concern about what measures could be used to determine when success has occurred. Participants also wondered if the field has sufficient baseline data to measure progress from here. While it is clear that there is misalignment between high school credential requirements and entry points for careers, participants were unclear how to measure this misalignment.

Participants suggested that better backwards mapping and mechanisms are needed to follow students from middle school to post-secondary, to understand what is working and what is not. Participants also suggested setting CCR goals and developing an accountability system that measures short term and intermediate goals and holds people accountable.

In Dr. Conley’s keynote speech, he suggested a nuanced approach to measuring CCR, as students have a wide array of aspirations and not all strive to attain a postsecondary education. Students’ skills, interests, aspirations and postsecondary objectives should be aligned so that students can develop a variety of skills and not have all students held to a single standard, regardless of their aspirations. To achieve this, Dr. Conley spoke of a need to create a foundational level of proficiency that all students must reach on which profiles of knowledge and skills are built so students become lifelong learners and adaptive citizens.

Although standards and assessments are part of the equation, cut scores, cumulative grade point averages or courses taken should not be the primary measure used as they fail to capture the complexity of individual students’ skills in relation to their aspirations. Dr. Conley emphasized the need to attempt to solve the problem, not to encapsulate it into a form that is easy to solve through policy.

Implications: Policymakers and practitioners will need to hold conversations about appropriate measures of CCR that do not oversimplify. Multiple measures should be used to assess a variety of competencies. Expected outcomes should be tailored the student’s aspirations, interests, and postsecondary objectives.

Note: This blog post was originally authored under the auspices of the National High School Center at the American Institutes for Research (AIR). The National High School Center’s blog, High School Matters, which ran until March 2013, provided an objective perspective on the latest research, issues, and events that affected high school improvement. The CCRS Center plans to continue relevant work originally developed under the National High School Center grant. National High School Center blog posts that pertain to CCRS Center issues are included on this website as a resource to our stakeholders.

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