On career readiness, put our measures where our mouth is

Matt Gandal and Ryan Reyna

“College and career readiness” has become a ubiquitous phrase in education policy circles. From state houses to school houses, everyone uses it. It’s what we want for our students, regardless of zip code. Congress even used it as a key point of emphasis when it reauthorized ESEA.

But when it comes to the measures and metrics we use to judge school performance, reality doesn’t match our rhetoric. State high school accountability systems have primarily been based on proficiency on state tests and high school graduation rates, rather than a more robust set of indicators. This is due, in part, to outdated federal requirements.

Where we have seen progress, it’s been out of balance. Though we mention “college” and “career” readiness in the same breath, the latter is rarely measured very well, if at all. Only a third of states have any measure of career readiness in their high school rating system, and the quality of those measures varies widely. It’s a little like the magicians Penn and Teller—both are important, but one is silent.

States have a real shot to get this right under the Every Student Succeeds Act. Not only does the law encourage states to include more robust measures of student success, it is becoming abundantly clear that the U.S. Department of Education is going to give states wide latitude in designing their accountability systems. This should embolden states to aim high, and put their measures where their mouths are.

To help states take advantage of this opportunity, Education Strategy Group (ESG) and the Council of Chief State School Officers released a report this week, Destination Known: Valuing College AND Career Readiness in State Accountability Systems, that identifies the measures states should adopt to make college and career readiness the main driver of their accountability systems. The recommendations arose out of deliberations by an expert workgroup made up of state and national leaders. The group included leaders from states like Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and Colorado, as well as representatives from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Education Trust, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, and the Center for American Progress, among others.

Destination Known provides a roadmap for the measures states can use in an accountability system to support all students in achieving success after high school, as well as strategies for putting that accountability system into practice.

The report recommends four measures states should adopt:

  • Progress toward Post-High School Credential: While high school graduation is a critical indicator of student success, the courses a student takes are a much stronger predictor of future success, especially more rigorous courses considered prerequisites for postsecondary education and training.
  • Co-curricular Learning and Leadership Experiences: Extended work-based learning, internships, apprenticeships, service learning projects, and other experiences allow students to apply what they learn in the classroom and develop academic, technical, and professional skills outside of the classroom.
  • Assessment of Readiness: To reflect the level of performance students need to be successful after high school, it is critical that states focus high school accountability on the percentage of students scoring at the college- and career-ready level on assessment(s) that are validated by higher education and industry. This is a higher bar than most states have traditionally used. It can include higher cut scores on state assessments, as well as Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and industry-recognized credentials.
  • Transitions beyond High School: If the goal of the K–12 system is to prepare students for their next step beyond high school, it is critical that states monitor how successfully students make those transitions, including college enrollment, remediation, apprenticeship and certificate programs, and job placement.

The report recommends that every state publicly report the performance of its high schools across all four of these measurement categories. No state uses all four today.

The report also recommends that all states make at least some of these measures “count” in their high school rating systems. Publicly reporting data for each high school is a good start, but incorporating the indicators into accountability ratings is where the rubber actually hits the road for schools and districts. As data are available and quality is verified, states should include—and assign significant weight to—all of the recommended measures in school ratings calculations.

We are not naïve. There are significant challenges that have to be overcome for states to deliver high-quality measures of college and career readiness. But those barriers should not stand in the way of states setting a vision for the future and working to meet it.

In years past, states like Massachusetts have shown us how to have high aspirations but set more achievable targets in the early years so that schools and students are stretched over time. And states like Kentucky have shown how making college and career readiness a centerpiece of school goals can change things for the better.

Aiming higher works. Let’s not waste this opportunity.

Matt Gandal is the founder and president of the Education Strategy Group, where Ryan Reyna is a senior associate.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.