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New Testing System to Gauge Career and College Readiness

A new assessment system to measure career-related content was unveiled today by the National Academy Foundation, a network of 500 career-themed high school academies, and WestEd, the San Francisco-based educational research nonprofit.

The NAF Student Certification Assessment System has been piloted in select schools over the past two years and will be rolled out this fall to about one-third of the 60,000 students at NAF academies. While the system will be built on the NAF network, the hope is that it will become a model that other high schools would adopt, says Andrew Rothstein, special adviser for education policy with NAF.

Just as a college-admissions officer might look at a student's grade point average before offering a spot in its freshman class, an employer could benefit from knowing a graduate's level of job-skill proficiency before extending a job offer. Also, students who complete career programs are often strong candidates for college, but it can be difficult to gauge their readiness with current tools.

There are three parts to the NAF certificate:

1. Project assessments: Students would be evaluated on curriculum-based, classroom projects that demonstrate proficiency in technical content and skills.

2. End-of-course exams: The tests would include a variety of questions to reflect depth of career knowledge.

3. Work-based learning assessments: Supervisors would give feedback on students' ability to apply career and technology knowledge on an internship.

With the system, all assessments would be done online, and students would be given a score at the end of each NAF course. The assessments were designed with input from industry professionals to reflect what is needed in the workplace, according to NAF officials.

The NAF academics, which are located in 39 states, currently focus on five industry areas: finance, hospitality & tourism, information technology, engineering, and health sciences. NAF was founded 30 years ago with a focus on closing the achievement gap and serving low-income, at-risk students.

The NAF system is intended to complement the assessments being developed for the Common Core State Standards, says Rothstein. While the common core emphasizes more college readiness, this system looks at career- and college-readiness as defined by core academics, career knowledge, foundational skills, interpersonal skills, and self-management. (The groups developing common assessments have wrestled over the definition of career readiness.)

Brenda Dann-Messier, assistant secretary of the office of vocational and adult education with the U.S. Department of Education, moderated a panel discussion on the new system at the NAF event in Washington today. Employers are having difficulty finding qualified workers because too often they lack the right combination of academic and technical skills. "We must help business and industry find the workforce they need," said Dann-Messier, adding that there needs to be an increased emphasis on a system to assess career readiness—not just college readiness.

On the panel, Stanley Rabinowitz, director of assessment- and standards-development services for WestEd, said that for too long there has been an unfortunate distinction between instruction and assessment. With this system, part of the evaluation is embedded in the curriculum, and the cumulative aspect of the students' work is considered. It better mirrors the workplace and how employees improve through feedback and peer review, he said.

Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities, said the NAF Student Certificate could be an extra tool to help evaluate students in the college-admission process. "It is not going to replace the current admissions process, but it adds a couple of elements that helps college and universities make decisions," he said.

The technology makes it easier to assess students' career-readiness, and the economic imperative creates a perfect time to launch this career- and college-preparedness measure, said J.D. Hoye, president of the NAF. The focus should be on lifting both paths, college and careers.

The best reason for assessing college and career readiness is that then teachers will cover both. "What you test is what you get," said Rabinowitz. "It's our responsibility to test responsibly. If we want assessment to go a certain way, we better reward teachers who teach that way."

The assessment will give a full picture to a college or employer about a student's applied career knowledge, said Rabinowitz.

Rawlings said there is a need for instruments that are clear-cut and simple to help understand basics about students. "I'm finished with the idea that there is one way to save our schools," he said. "There is not one great answer."

ACT Inc. recently announced its plans to roll out digital college- and career-readiness tests for students beginning in 3rd grade.

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