Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

College and the Workforce: What ‘Readiness’ Means

By Catherine Gewertz — January 07, 2010 9 min read
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As the standards movement has evolved, one of its key questions has shifted. Instead of simply asking what students should know and be able to do to complete high school, educators and policymakers are now asking what students need to master to be prepared for the higher-level demands of college and career.

The new concept of standards’ end point has been taking shape for years, experts in the field say, and a consensus has crystallized more recently, as advocacy groups and state and federal leaders push not just for good-quality standards, but for “college- and career-ready” standards.

“When the standards discussion began in the 1980s, use of the word ‘standards’ was code for more rigor, but there wasn’t clarity about what that meant,” says Jack Jennings, a former top aide to Democrats on the U.S. House of Representatives’ education committee, who is now the president of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy.

“Now we’ve come to understand that you have to start at the end point when we lay out what we want students to know,” he says. “And we’ve moved that end point higher, too, to college and career readiness.”

Ann S. Coles, who has worked for more than 40 years with college-access programs for disadvantaged students, says that in the 1980s and early 1990s, school leaders scoffed when she suggested that they urge students to think of their studies as preparation for work or college, not simply for passing state tests.

“The assumption was that if you had a high school diploma, you were ready for whatever comes next,” says Coles, who is a senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, in Washington. “Now, wherever I go, people are talking about the importance of school for college and work.”

Vicki Phillips, the director of education initiatives at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, says the Seattle-based philanthropy’s investment in school improvement over the past eight years has taught it a clear lesson: “High school alone just isn’t high enough anymore.”

If young people are to have true opportunity, they must enroll in two- or four-year colleges, or in high-quality training programs that lead to good jobs, she says.

Perhaps the most visible example of standards’ shift toward college or career readiness is the current move to design common standards. Led by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association and supported by 48 states, the Common Core State Standards Initiative has enlisted committees of experts to produce a draft of knowledge and skills they say are required for entry-level, credit-bearing college work and for workplace skills in jobs with good salaries and growth potential.


Several strands of concern, swirling for years among business groups, academics, and policymakers, have fueled the move toward standards pegged to college and career readiness. And calls from President Barack Obama for higher educational attainment, combined with the availability of some $100 billion in federal stimulus money for education, have quickened the pace of movement on the issue, experts say.

In surveys, employers complain that too many entry-level workers lack the skills to do well. Studies of college remediation rates, particularly in community colleges, show that large numbers of recent high school graduates can’t pass placement tests for entry-level, credit-bearing coursework.

“Even if we get kids through high school, many times we don’t prepare them for college, and business folks are telling us that kids are not coming into jobs with the communication and problem-solving skills they need,” says Scott Montgomery, a deputy executive director of the CCSSO.

Crucial Skills, Knowledge

The common-standards draft seeks to address those gaps by incorporating skills and knowledge that higher education and employers most value, he says. Achieve Inc., a Washington-based group that has worked with states for years to design standards and benchmarks informed by employer and higher education input, is taking a lead role in the common-standards work.

Data fueled a growing conviction that American schools needed to kick it up a notch, policy observers say. The recognition that students in other countries often outperform U.S. students on tests, what some say is the erosion of the nation’s high international ranking in educational attainment, and domestic performance gaps among socioeconomic and racial groups that emerged under the federal No Child Left Behind Act all helped build demand for higher expectations.

The increased availability of school data intensified the spotlight on the particularly poor educational outcomes of low-income and minority students, and those equity concerns became a driver of demand for uniformly high standards for all students, in all schools.

“If in fact there is a convergence between what is necessary for college and work, we need to make sure all kids are prepared for that level,” says Kati Haycock, the president of the Education Trust, a Washington group that advocates policies to improve schooling for disadvantaged students.

Those in the field credit the 2001 formation of the American Diploma Project, by Achieve, the Education Trust, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, with a large role in advancing the idea that standards must be pegged to the demands of college and the workplace. Research identifying the course rigor and content—not just the titles—that students need to thrive in college, as well as the life and work habits they need to thrive in higher education or at work, helped inform the standards dialogue as well.

“Before, people would just say, ‘Oh, four credits in math,’ but they wouldn’t ask what kind of math it was,” says researcher Clifford Adelman, whose 1999 “toolbox” study for the U.S. Department of Education broke ground in identifying the course content required for college success. “It’s content that matters, and getting content aligned so that kids don’t trip going into college.”

Challenges to Implementation

The mounting recognition that standards had to be high enough to meaningfully prepare students for productive lives after high school created fertile ground for ideas and activity when President Obama called shortly after taking office for more Americans to get postsecondary training, and made education aid a key part of his economic-stimulus package. Conditions attached to some of the money obligate states and districts to design standards and tests pegged to high levels.

Despite the growing rhetorical and financial support for college- and work-readiness standards, plenty of complexity and disagreement lie between the idea and the implementation.

Steve DeWitt, the senior director of public policy at the Association for Career and Technical Education, in Alexandria, Va., says that while he welcomes the inclusion of community colleges and certification programs in the national dialogue on postsecondary education, it is tricky to define properly what skills students should have for varying work-bound paths.

“College and career skills are not necessarily interchangeable,” he says. “Everyone needs a baseline of core academic and employability skills, but the technical skills might be different.”

A number of researchers and policymakers argue that standards developers make a critical error by building them on the presumption that the skills and knowledge needed for work and college are the same. Paul E. Barton, a senior associate at the Policy Information Center of the Educational Testing Service, of Princeton, N.J., says that the levels and types needed vary substantially.

A report he wrote in 2000, for instance, examined types of literacy needed in various professions. He found that “document literacy” skills—those needed to make sense of everyday materials like maps or job applications—varied on a 500-point scale, from 244 for someone who operated blasting equipment to 368 for a life scientist.

He also notes the variations in mid-range SAT scores of freshmen at different colleges. At Yale University, for instance, the mid-range reading score was 700 to 800, out of a possible 800; on Ohio State University’s flagship Columbus campus, it was 540 to 650; and at Lincoln University, in Jefferson City, Mo., it was 340 to 470, according to College Board data for 2008-09.

“Common standards and college readiness are simply an extension of the bandwagon that the country and high school reform have been on for the last five or six years, and no one seems to be questioning it very much,” says Barton. “It’s a huge oversimplification, and it risks creating a one-size-fits-all high school curriculum, when kids need different things.”

Hans K. Meeder, a U.S. deputy assistant secretary for vocational and adult education under President George W. Bush, says that some states require students to take math through Algebra 2, which likely exceeds what is required by many jobs.

“I haven’t seen convincing evidence that all skilled career jobs require those high levels of skill,” says Meeder, who now runs a consulting company in Columbia, Md.

The education historian Diane Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University, says it doesn’t matter whether standards are pegged to high school, college, or work if all they do is define the skills students must have, but not the material they need to master.

“It’s all about analyzing and explicating, and all those things that end in ‘ing,’ but they don’t say what [content] they are going to do that about,” says Ravitch, who was a technical adviser for Quality Counts 2010.

Some scholars and advocates argue that the push toward college-readiness standards is unfair to students who don’t want to attend college.

“ ‘College for all’ is another trite phrase you can pop into a speech, and it sounds great, but I know we are not going to send everyone to college. All kids don’t want to go to college. It doesn’t make sense,” says Liam Julian, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, a think tank at Stanford University. “Why keep them trapped in college-prep classes when they could be gaining valuable skills that would enhance their job prospects?”

Haycock, of the Education Trust, argues that one set of high, common standards is indeed necessary if all children are to have access to a good education.

“As long as you have different paths and standards, educators will send poor and minority kids down the lower-level one,” she says.

Nancy Hoffman, who oversees high-school-to-college work for Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based research and advocacy group, says that no set of college-readiness standards is going to succeed in lifting classroom learning to a higher level unless colleges see them as valid enough to use as a basis for making course-placement decisions.

And Jennings of the Center on Education Policy says that common standards won’t have their desired impact unless they are part of a “trinity”—shared standards, assessments, and test-score-cutoff points—needed to effectively hold all students to college- and career-ready levels.

Even if standards and tests are structured to hold students to higher expectations, says Coles of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, there is still a long way to go until all schools learn how—and have the resources—to become skilled at helping each student reach those expectations.

“In order for students, particularly disadvantaged students, to achieve high standards, they need a lot of support,” she says. “This is going to be much harder than just designing standards. This is going to take a sea change in how education is delivered.”

In March 2024, Education Week announced the end of the Quality Counts report after 25 years of serving as a comprehensive K-12 education scorecard. In response to new challenges and a shifting landscape, we are refocusing our efforts on research and analysis to better serve the K-12 community. For more information, please go here for the full context or learn more about the EdWeek Research Center.


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