Every Student Succeeds Act

How Are States Measuring College-and-Career Readiness? It’s a Hodge-Podge

By Alyson Klein — January 22, 2019 7 min read
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Participating in dual enrollment. Getting a certain score on the ACT or Advanced Placement. Meeting entrance requirements for the state university system. Snagging an industry-recognized certification. Proving “military-readiness.” Participating in work-based learning.

Nearly every state is gauging school performance in part by whether students show that they are ready for life after high school. A big part of the reason: States had to choose at least one measure of school quality or student success—something beyond test scores—under the Every Student Succeeds Act. Career readiness was by far one of the most popular choices.

In fact, a total of 44 states are looking at college and/or career readiness somewhere in their accountability systems, whether for ESSA or under state systems for rating schools, according to a forthcoming analysis by Education Strategy Group, an organization that works with states on K-12 and postsecondary transitions. The analysis was completed in collaboration with Advance CTE and Achieve, nonprofit organizations that work with states on college and/or career readiness and other issues.

Advocates and state officials say these measures can hold schools accountable for putting students on the path to college, or to earning a living wage after graduation—both goals that parents and the business community are deeply interested in.

Ohio gauged schools on college-and-career readiness even before ESSA’s passage in 2015, in part because of parent input, said Chris Woolard, the state’s senior executive director for performance and impact.

Patchwork of ‘Readiness’

Postsecondary and workforce preparation “tends to be the number one thing that parents are interested in,” he said. “Knowing that [students] leave the system and they are ready for what comes next is an important question, and it’s a tangible one.”

But some experts are concerned that only a handful of states consider some measure beyond high school, such as postsecondary enrollment, in gauging college-and-career readiness. And while most states offer students a choice of possibilities for demonstrating that students are prepared for what comes after high school, most aren’t tracking for accountability purposes whether historically overlooked groups of students, including black and Hispanic students, are more likely to go down the “career” path as opposed to the “college” track, experts say.

The specifics of how states are measuring college readiness vary. Coursework—such as taking Advanced Placement or dual-enrollment classes—are a popular way to meet the requirement. Thirty-six states are using this approach for federal accountability, according to Education Strategy Group’s analysis.

Other states are taking a closer look at work-based learning experiences, which could include an apprenticeship or internship. Twelve states are including some sort of measure of work-based learning or leadership experience in their ESSA plans, Education Strategy Group found. And 21 states consider whether students have earned industry credentials, according to an analysis by the Alliance for Excellent Education, a research and advocacy organization in Washington.

Many ‘Menus’

In most states, students have several options for demonstrating that they are ready for postsecondary education or the workplace. In fact, about 30 states offer such “menus,” according to the Alliance’s analysis.

Typically, states give students a choice of either demonstrating that they are ready for college or for postsecondary careers.

Although there are common elements—course-taking, college-entrance tests, industry-recognized certification—"college-and-career readiness” looks a little different everywhere. And experts are split on whether that’s a good thing.

Ryan Reyna, the director of the Education Strategy Group, sees the diversity among states as “positive for the country.”

“I think it’s important that we have states looking at things that matter directly to their constituents,” he said. “I think states have to define that for themselves and have to define it within their context.” Opportunities, he said, can vary across the country when it comes to things like work-based learning. He expects, though, that expectations may become more similar nationwide over time, as officials learn from each other.

But Phillip Lovell, the vice president for policy development and government relations at the Alliance, worries it will be tough to figure out how different states stack up on the issue.

“I think that because there’s not a standard way by which it’s measured, we’re not actually going to be sure what these data tell us,” Lovell said. “It will be pretty unclear what it means when we say ‘oh, 60 percent of students are college-and-career ready in state x.’”

And he added that “What we do know is that by-and-large it will not mean that students enter college, or enter college without remediation,” That’s because only a handful of states are rolling postsecondary outcomes into their accountability systems, he said. “And one might say that’s our problem, or our opportunity for improvement,” Lovell added.

Only eight states, by Education Strategy Group’s count, look at some sort of transition beyond high school such as postsecondary enrollment.

Connecticut, which looks at whether students start college, is among them. “We want at least a little bit of the accountability for a public system to extend beyond that system and bridge to another system,” said Ajit Gopalakrishnan, the state’s chief performance officer.

By the Alliance’s count, just one state—Georgia—is looking at whether students are ready for college-bearing coursework without remediation. Being able to take credit-bearing college coursework right from the start is one way students can prove they are college-and-career ready in the state’s system.

“You could have fairly high graduation rates but still pretty high remediation rates when kids go onto to postsecondary studies. And that’s a problem, right?” said Allison Timberlake, the state’s deputy superintendent for assessment and accountability. “The intent of high school is to prepare for you those next steps. If we see lots of kids needing remediation that’s extending the length of time they need to be in college, it’s increasing their costs, it may even be a bit more difficult for them to persevere through college if they are trying to catch up.”

Vulnerable Students

It’s unclear at this point whether the same schools that get flagged for having low test scores will also be called out for doing poorly on college-and-career readiness. But state officials are hoping to at least shine a spotlight on schools that don’t offer students opportunities to take advanced courses or do an apprenticeship.

Connecticut is rating schools both on whether students participate in courses or activities that will get them ready for college, and separately, on whether they are successful. That means, for instance, that the accountability system considers whether a student took an Advanced Placement class, and separately, whether that student received a ‘3,’ which is typically a high enough score to earn college credit.

“Accountability systems on their own can’t close skill gaps or ensure that students will be successful,” said Christy Hovanetz, a senior policy fellow at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a research and advocacy organization. “But the information gleaned from these systems can lead to critical actions that are taken in the classroom to meet students’ needs and also help increase access to college-ready coursework.”

Most states aren’t publicly tracking for accountability purposes whether students from historically disadvantaged groups, such as African-American and Hispanic students— are more likely to choose the “career” path as opposed to the “college” one.

That information would be helpful from both an “equity perspective and a policy perspective,” Lovell said. “That way you could really tell that it’s the students of color who are in [career and technical education] or who are in the military route and it’s our white kids who are AP and IB. Or maybe that’s not the case, and those schools should be particularly applauded.”

Ohio doesn’t yet break out its data that way. But Woolard, the state’s performance and impact director, sees the value in it and aims to report it down the line.

“We want to be as transparent about this as possible,” he said. “This is an equity issue, and if we end up with subgroup issues, that defeats the purpose.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 23, 2019 edition of Education Week as States Using Post-High School Readiness as ESSA Yardstick


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