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ACT Seeks to Connect Test Scores, Career Readiness

The ACT's annual score report is out, and it delivers the predictable mix of good and bad news.

We'll keep it brief here, since you can read about the findings in my story. The good: A growing proportion of students are ready for the rigors of college in all four subject areas. More students from underrepresented groups, such as Hispanics and African-Americans, are taking the exam. The bad: Most students still are not ready for college. Stubborn racial and ethnic gaps persist. And students' English and reading scores are not improving.

With that summary, I can edge over to interesting tidbits I couldn't fit into my story. This, for instance: the ACT's annual score report, typically cast as a thermometer of college readiness, is subtly morphing into a report on college and career readiness.

Note the migrating title. The annual score report has traditionally been called "The Condition of College Readiness." But last year, the title got an additional two words: "The Condition of College and Career Readiness." Same thing this year. The title of its press release announces that the ACT is using its scores to reflect career readiness: "College & Career Readiness Improving Among U.S. High School Graduates."

Clearly, we have some positioning going on. One of the most often-uttered phrases in education conversation the last couple of years is "college and career readiness." The new common standards were written to reflect it (even as educators disagree about how to define it). ACT was one of the organizations at the table when those standards were written. New tests are being designed by groups of states to reflect college and career readiness.

ACT has been in the work-readiness game for a while. Its Work Readiness System includes the WorkKeys job-readiness assessment, and the National Career Readiness Certificate. But morphing its annual score report into a vehicle to measure career readiness as well as college readiness marks a new kind of territory.

Take a look, for instance, at pages 10 and 11 of the report. Page 10 lays out the five fastest-growing career areas, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, and compares them to the career interests of students who took the ACT. We see something of a mismatch here; the basic message is that there is going to be more demand for these jobs than young people interested in taking them. Okay. Fair enough.

But page 11 attempts to make a connection between students' ACT scores and career readiness. It looks at those five career areas and reports what proportion of ACT test-takers fell short of college readiness benchmarks in each subject. Wait, college readiness benchmarks? In career fields? What's the connection here?

After all, the ACT's college readiness benchmarks are score cutoffs that are correlated, in its research, with students' likelihood of doing well in entry-level college courses. A chart like the one on page 11 seems to suggest that those skills are the same ones students need to be ready for the challenges of work. And experts don't exactly agree on this point.

The chart on page 11 certainly seems to suggest that the ACT exam's way of measuring skills will produce results that could be pertinent indicators of job-readiness. So I asked the ACT's senior vice president, Jon Erickson, whether ACT has done research that connects students' exam scores with their success in the early years of work, just as they have researched how students' scores correlate with success in the first year of college.

He said the organization has studied ACT test-takers' career choices, job satisfaction and income level, and collected employers' ratings of them. But he acknowledged that no clear connection has yet been made between students' ACT scores and their job success. The career information in the report, he said, was offered to give a broad picture of the potential mismatch between students' interests and available jobs, and between their general level of academic skill and the academic skills that jobs require. Academic skills, he noted, are only one type of skill necessary for college and career readiness.

That's a point the ACT made in its press release, but nowhere in its annual report. Which, you might recall, is now called "The Condition of College and Career Readiness."

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