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Accountability, College & Career Readiness: Is This the Best We Can Do?

I recently wrote a blog about the way the top-performing countries set up their accountability systems to assure college and career readiness.  A few days later, I read a new report by the Council of Chief State School Officers called "Destination Known: Valuing College and Career Readiness in State Accountability Systems," prepared by the Education Strategy Group.  The report is thorough, thoughtful and specific.  It appears to reflect the state of the art in this arena in the United States today.  And, in so doing, it reveals how big the gap is between global best practice and typical American practice. 

Those of you who read the earlier blog will recall that in top-performing education systems, qualifications systems are designed so that at the end of each stage of a student's progression through the school system, and then from high school to college and career, there are examinations and performance assessments intended to determine whether the student has met the qualifications for moving on to the next stage.  The standards for the qualifications are clear and the pathways are well-defined, although students can change pathways if they wish.  Such systems make it clear what it means to be college and work ready.  Everyone knows what it takes to get into various types of postsecondary institutions.  Everyone knows what it takes to be admitted to the training that will lead to a wide variety of lower- and middle-skill careers and what it takes at the end of that training to start out in a particular career. 

In many of the top-performing countries, the qualifications system is coupled to a board examination system.  Board examination systems are structured to match the qualifications system, but they go further.  They are built around a progression of courses through the grades, each of which is specified by a course syllabus provided by the state.  Exams developed and administered by the state are meant to assess the degree to which the student has learned what he or she was supposed to learn in the course. The courses progress in a logical order.  Students who master the courses in the sequence will reach each qualification in turn as they go through the sequence.  The questions asked in the exams are released after the exam is administered, along with examples of the student work that earned top marks.  This is possible because these exam systems are based not on multiple-choice questions, but on short essay questions that are centrally scored under the supervision of the examination board.  Some of these systems include in the course grade the marks given to forms of student work that cannot be included in timed exams, such as a computer software program, an oil painting, a musical composition or performance or an engineering project.  Grades given on these performances are moderated by the examination board to make sure that the grades are reasonably reliable.  While this system sounds constraining, teachers typically have a lot of latitude in planning their lessons to meet the needs of their own students.

Students in such systems who do not intend to go to university right after high school usually work toward a career-oriented qualification.  But career and technical education is usually set to much higher academic standards than is generally the case in the United States career and technical education programs. These systems are not narrowly defined credentialing pathways that end up in dead ends; students have the option of combining further academic and occupational qualifications right through university. They are for students who prefer applied learning and careers that combine intellectual with practical challenges.  Demanding performance assessments are typically a very important part of these systems.  It is never too late to pick up any credential.  They are not age-based, so anyone who lacks a qualification they want can always go after it, at any stage of their life.

The combination of a qualifications system and board examination system is very powerful.

In such a system (here and below I refer to the combination of qualification system and board examination system) the question now obsessing American educators--what it means to be college and career ready--does not arise.  The system itself makes the answer to that question obvious: one has to earn the relevant qualification for the kind of institution you want to attend, the program you want to enroll in or the career you wish to begin.  Because the courses you need to take, the grades you need to get and the kind of work you need to produce to get those grades are all very clear. Students are motivated to work hard to reach the goals they set for themselves. 

Accountability in a system like this is pretty straightforward.  Schools' scores—not individuals' scores—on the exams are collected and released by the state, and often published in the newspapers, sometimes on the front pages.  Selective high schools, colleges, universities, employers, apprenticeship programs and the military all pay a lot of attention to the courses taken and the grades received, because they know just what the content of each course is and what it takes to do well in them. As a result, students are held accountable for their performance in ways that really matter to them because they directly affect their future.  Officials in these systems can easily spot schools that are not doing as well as they should be. Countries with a system like this usually have systems to dispatch an inspection team to the school to see what the problem is.  The first question they are likely to ask is whether the faculty is implementing the curriculum and how well trained they are to teach it.

In countries with systems like this, expectations for student performance are high and uniform. All students, not just some, get a rich and powerful curriculum that is specifically designed to get students to perform at expectations. Few students are left behind, because the whole system is designed to quickly identify students who struggle and give them the help they need to stay on track.  Standards for high school qualifications are set at world-class levels.  Benchmarks for the end of elementary and middle school are set accordingly.  Students rarely arrive in middle or high school years behind where they should be, as they often do in the United States.  Students have a very clear idea of what kind of work they need to do to get good grades, because the system provides them with those examples.  Teachers are taught to teach the courses their students will be taking, so they are well prepared to help their students succeed against a very demanding curriculum.

The question of how to make sure that students are ready for college and career does not arise in countries with qualifications systems.  They start with their own definition of the standards that have to be met to enter various kinds of postsecondary institutions and to begin a career and then work backwards, building the qualifications system so that each step in one's education leads seamlessly to the next. 

The premise of the Destination Known report, embodied in its title, is that American schools should be held accountable for getting their students ready for college and work.  But the irony is that many American colleges, which are funded based on their enrollments, have lowered their standards of admission to accommodate what they are actually getting from the high schools.  I have yet to hear of a college that shut its doors because it could not get enough students who meet its standards.  If the typical high school graduate reads at a seventh or eighth grade level, has a hard time doing middle school math and writes very poorly, then many—probably the majority—of colleges will take students of that description rather than close their doors.  The process Americans use to "validate" that high school graduates are ready for college masks this reality because it does not require anyone to be clear about exactly what such students know or don't know and can or cannot do. No top-performing country does this.

I realize that, even though the real standard for admitting students into most of our colleges to take credit-bearing courses is appallingly low, a large fraction of our high school graduates cannot meet even that standard and must take remedial courses before they are allowed to take credit-bearing courses.  But our college officials, realizing that even the students who pass their remedial courses have a very poor chance of succeeding in college are responding by waiving the requirement that they pass these remedial courses, thus further lowering the standard for "college-level" work.  I understand that this policy is well meant, and it makes sense in the current context, but it makes it even less clear what we really mean by "ready for college."  And it makes it, as I see it, even more important to ask ourselves what we would have to do if we were serious about getting our students ready for what the rest of the world thinks of as "college." 

Similarly, I can understand why the authors of Destination Kown want to use the taking of "college-level" courses in high school as one indicator of college readiness.  But, the question I would ask is what the state is doing to make sure that the courses for which college credit is being given are actually college-level courses.  Are we speaking here of being ready for any college that will have you—a very low standard indeed in many states—or do they mean their community colleges or do they mean the lowest level of their 4-year state college system?  Would they accept what any college says is a college-level course taught in high school as being college level? 

Rather than encourage the states to construct accountability systems for college and career readiness built on coherent, comprehensive, well-structured qualifications systems with integrated board examination systems and skills standards systems, the authors of Destination Known appear to be ready to urge the states to accept college's definition of what it means to be college ready—no matter how modest—to accept whatever hodgepodge of employer qualifications happens to be available, and, finally, to assemble bits and pieces of a qualifications system from existing parts and pieces, none of which were ever intended for this purpose.

Maybe the first step for the state's college-and-career-ready accountability program is to hold high schools accountable for delivering a high school level program of study in high school to all students.  Among the measures the states might employ in such an accountability program are independent measures of the reading level of the texts the high schools are assigning, to determine whether the texts being used in the 12th grade are set to a 12th-grade level of literacy; whether students can at least use the kinds of skills taught in a good eighth grade algebra class to solve word problems of a type they have not seen before; or whether students can write a two-page, literate, persuasive, logically ordered, grammatically correct summary of a ten-page article on a technical subject from a popular magazine using a 12th-grade vocabulary.  Many American high schools would fail this test.  If a high school does not offer a real high school curriculum in high school, it is unreasonable to expect its students to graduate ready for college or career.  That is the beginning of accountability.  If a high school does offer such a program, then it is reasonable to hold the students accountable for mastering it and to ask what proportion of its students meet these standards and how each protected group is progressing toward such a standard.  The same reasoning that applies to readiness for the high school program applies to readiness for the middle school program and to readiness for the first grade.  This kind of thinking, of course, is the basis for any sound qualifications system.

I do not fault the authors of Destination Known for their suggestions for a college-and-career-ready accountability system.  Those suggestions are, in a sense, the only tools at hand.  But we should not have to settle for that.  Isn't it time that the states, either one by one, or working together, familiarize themselves with the most successful accountability and instructional systems in the world and build something at least as good?

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