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Are Students Prepared for College and Careers? How Can We Tell?


Not long ago, schools provided a great sorting function. The sorted some students off into a college preparation track. The rest were steered into courses that would prepare them for a career.


Now, of course, that dichotomy won’t work. By 2025, nearly 68 percent of all jobs will require some education after high school. And parents who have written big checks for college tuition would like some confidence that their son or daughter will actually qualify for a job at the end of four years. (Okay, maybe five.)


So it’s not a surprise that state ESSA plans and district goals often include the this promise: We graduate students who are ready for both college and a career. At a conference, it comes out almost as a single word: collegeandcareerready.

But how can policymakers know whether that’s really happening? In a piece I wrote for the National Association of State Boards of Education, I reminded board members of a key policy lever they can draw on – the power of the question. I suggested questions boards should be asking – but these questions apply equally to members of local boards, state legislatures, and, come to think of it, governors’ staffs.


1. Does “college and career ready” mean that students are actually prepared for both?

As Urban Institute fellow Robert Lerman observed in 2016, “When most states say college and career ready, they just mean college ready.” (By “college,” I mean either a two- or four-year postsecondary course of study leading to a degree or an industry certification.) The typical state accountability system has long tracked and measured the number of students taking advanced-level courses such as Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) or scores on college readiness exams.


A few states (Kentucky, I’m looking at you) have not only talked about college and career readiness, they have measured for it. Schools receive extra credit for graduating students who have both college readiness and serious career preparation.

To determine whether students are being prepared for both college and career, here are questions to ask:

  • What career readiness measures do we track in our district or state:

  • Have we built in rewards for schools that graduate students who are prepared for college, career, or both?

  • What’s the trend?

2. Are career courses based on rigorous academic content?


When I was on the school board, I’d sometimes hear parents discouraging their kids from taking career and technical education (CTE) classes. Their worry was that the classes would not rigorous enough to meet college-level standards, should the student decide to enroll.


Sadly, they were often right. But today, there are states and districts that are working hard to ensure that career courses still provide solid academics. In Washington, a course in residential carpentry that aligns with a board-approved framework also qualifies as a credit in geometry.


To make sure CTE courses are rigorous, ask these questions:

  • Is the course content in CTE classes aligned with academic standards?

  • Can CTE students demonstrate their mastery of academic skills and content? How?

3. Are students being prepared for jobs that will move them into the middle class?


Ben Miller, now from the Center for American Progress (and also a member of what I call the Education Sector Diaspora), has analyzed certificate programs and found that often, there’s less there than meets the eye. In fact, of the 15 certificate programs that produce the largest number of graduates, 10 offer average incomes of $18,000 or less. Most high school graduates without a certificate can earn more than that.


Schools have neither the time nor the space to offer a class in every potential career. It only makes sense to ensure that the classes they offer will allow students to move into middle-class jobs.


To determine whether schools are offering the right blend of career education classes, ask these questions:

  • Are the classes your schools offer preparing students for current labor employment needs?

  • If students will begin their job preparation in high school and complete it in a postsecondary institution, what steps have been taken to ensure that the coursework prepares students for the transition?

There’s more information - and lots more questions to ask - in the paper, Five Questions Boards Should Ask to Advance College and Career Readiness, out today.

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