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School Accountability Systems Need Meaningful College and Career Readiness Indicators

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This post is by Soung Bae, Senior Research and Policy Analyst for the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2013, only about 66 percent of high school graduates enrolled in a two- or four-year college the following fall and the graduation rates from these institutions were even lower. Given these low college enrollment and completion rates, ensuring that all students graduate from high school well prepared for their futures, whether they transition into higher education or work, is a critical endeavor. Schools and districts must develop strong, supportive pathways that incorporate both college- and career-ready skills in order to ensure that all students will find their way to a productive future.

The need for developing college and career readiness is evident in states' learning standards as well as federal accountability legislation. For example, at last count, 42 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core State Standards, which were designed to ensure that all students graduate from high school equipped with the 21st century or deeper learning skills that employers and institutes of higher education demand. In addition, the recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act as the Every Student Succeeds Act creates opportunities for states to redesign their school accountability systems to incorporate a broader, more comprehensive vision of postsecondary preparedness and success for students.

Within this evolving context, states can take the initiative to include in their accountability systems robust and meaningful indicators of college and career readiness. Doing so will broaden what postsecondary success looks like and have a direct influence on school and district priorities and focus. The inclusion of college and career indicators can serve to motivate schools and districts to develop multiple pathways for deeper learning and postsecondary success.

In service of developing robust and meaningful college and career readiness indicators, I suggest the following indicators for education leaders to consider:

  1. Consider using grade point average (GPA) as an indicator.

Course performance, especially poor performance, is a bellwether of future academic problems. Research has shown that overall GPA is a strong predictor of college enrollment and is the single best predictor of freshman grades in college and other four-year college outcomes such as cumulative college grades and graduation. Moreover, research suggests that grade point averages act as proxies for both academic skills and non-cognitive factors such as motivation and perseverance, which are essential to postsecondary success.

In the school accountability system, the GPA indicator could be measured as the GPA itself, or the percentage of students earning a GPA above some level (e.g., 2.5 or 3.0), or the percentage of students failing core courses. Using GPA as a college and career readiness indicator can serve multiple purposes. First, because GPA reflects course performance of individual students, it can help educators to better identify struggling students in order to provide targeted supports and interventions. Second, consistent patterns of low GPAs among particular groups of students or in certain settings may indicate a problem with access to curriculum or low student expectations.

2. Consider using course taking as an indicator.

Research has demonstrated that students' course taking patterns can increase the likelihood of entry into and performance in college. Specifically, taking more advanced courses in high school consistently predicts college enrollment, has the highest correlation with bachelor degree attainment, and improves rates of college enrollment, college grade point average, and college persistence.

In addition, research on the effects of career academies on college success has revealed similar positive postsecondary outcomes. Research conducted by the Center for Advanced Research and Technology showed that 71 percent of career academy students enrolled in community college directly from high school, compared to 60 percent of demographically similar non-academy students. A study of 467 Career Partnership Academies (CPA) in 278 California high schools demonstrated that 57 percent of CPA graduates fulfilled the a-g courses required for admission to the University of California or California State University systems, compared to only 36 percent of graduates statewide. And research has shown that Career and Technical Education (CTE) students earned higher wages and experienced more employment stability.

Thus, the research evidence shows that course taking has the potential to be a strong indicator of college and career readiness. Potential measures of course taking could be the rates of students' access to and completion of college preparatory courses, high quality CTE pathways, or integrated course pathways that incorporate CTE pathways with college preparatory academic curricula.

To date, several states include measures of course taking in their school accountability systems: Georgia, New York, Maryland, New Mexico, and North Carolina. For example, Maryland has developed a college and career readiness indicator, which consists of a school's five-year graduation rate and a measure of college and career preparation. Students are counted toward college and career readiness by taking and scoring well on Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams, by enrolling into college directly from high school, or by achieving advanced standing in an approved CTE program. In New Mexico, students count toward the college and career readiness indicator by completing a career pathway with a grade of C or higher in all coursework.

3. Consider using course taking as a college and career indicator to measure opportunities to learn as well.

Ambitious educational outcomes, such as preparing all students for success in college and careers, depend on students' access to a rich curriculum. Given the strong relation between enrollment in advanced mathematics and science courses and student achievement, access to strong and rigorous coursework matters. Yet, research has shown that secondary schools attended primarily by low-income and minority students offer fewer advanced and college-preparatory courses and minority students are more likely to be assigned to nonacademic and remedial tracks. Thus, by tracking and monitoring students' course taking, schools and districts may be incentivized to develop strong programs of study for every student, to promote policies and practices that support high-level learning for all students, and to provide more access to equitable pathways for postsecondary success.

4. Try not to use of standardized tests such as the SAT or ACT as a primary indicator.

Standardized tests such as the SAT or ACT are relatively poor predictors of college readiness and have no predictive validity for career readiness. A recent study conducted by Hiss and Franks examined the outcomes of optional standardized testing policies in 33 private and public colleges and universities to test whether college admissions decisions were reliable for students who were admitted without SAT or ACT scores. The researchers found that few significant differences were observed between cumulative GPAs and graduation rates of students who submitted standardized testing scores and those who didn't, despite significant differences in SAT and ACT scores. 

Hiss and Franks' study reinforces what other predictive validity studies have found; high school cumulative GPA is a better predictor of postsecondary success than standardized testing. Currently, more than 850 colleges and universities have committed to instituting "test optional" or "test flexible" admissions policies whereby they do not use SAT or ACT scores to make admissions decisions.

Moreover, research has shown that standardized tests do not have the same reliability and validity across different races, languages, and socioeconomic statuses. For example, black students score lower on the SAT when compared to white peers, and SAT and ACT performance is related to family income and wealth. Jaschik showed that the average composite score on the ACT in 2005 for students from families whose income was $18,000 or less was 17.9, while those from families with incomes over $100,000 was 23.5. Therefore, using SAT or ACT scores as an indicator of college and career readiness may exacerbate the structural inequalities that exist within the educational system and place students from low socioeconomic, diverse language and racial backgrounds at a disadvantage.

5. Consider the inclusion of indicators of authentic experience and performance.

Indicators of authentic experience and performance may include work-based learning experiences, performance-based assessments, and graduation portfolios. These types of experiences and performances provide students with the opportunity to contextualize their learning and apply their academic and technical skills in real-world settings. Moreover, they are more accurate measures of the 21st century skills (e.g., critical thinking, problem solving, communication skills) that are in demand and poorly measured through traditional multiple-choice tests.

State and local education agencies can draw on practices and policies already established in the California Partnership Academies and National Academy Foundation regarding how to ensure that work-based learning experiences meet standards of high quality. In addition, a growing number of schools and career academies require all students to complete a structured graduation portfolio, which includes performance assessments that are samples of work reflecting key college and career readiness skills. The use of scoring rubrics ensures that student performances meet quality standards. These kinds of portfolios are used for graduation for all schools in Rhode Island and for approved schools that are a part of the New York Performance Standards Consortium.

Now is the time for states to take bold actions toward redesigning school accountability systems that ensure deeper learning and equitable access to high quality education for all students. The incorporation of college and career readiness indicators such as GPA and course taking into school accountability systems assures that students have access to and are taking and passing the courses they need to keep their postsecondary options open. The proposed college and career readiness indicators not only encourage the provision of higher quality learning opportunities to all students, but also promote multiple pathways to postsecondary success.

 

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