SEPTEMBER 26, 2013

How College and Career Readiness Became So Popular:
A primer on where we have been and where we are going.

Six years ago, the nation was obsessed with closing "drop-out factories" and increasing the high school graduation rate. Since then, educators have observed that a high school diploma by itself does not mean much; and political leaders from President Barack Obama on down have moved to the next hot thing: college and career preparation.

Cities and states are reworking their education systems to better prepare students for college and high-level employment demands. In New York City, the Department of Education has revamped its high-stakes accountability system in an effort to make college and career preparation a top priority, while New York State is introducing tougher tests and adopting national standards called the Common Core.

When did the idea of "college and careers for all" become so important? And where will New York City be going next? What follows is a "cheat sheet" designed to offer a quick account of what has been happening nationally and what we can expect locally:

STEP ONE: Coin the Term "College and Career Readiness"

In 2005, Professor David T. Conley of the University of Oregon published a groundbreaking book: College Knowledge: What It Really Takes for Students to Succeed and What We Can Do to Get Them Ready. At the time, plenty of people were talking about the importance of getting more low-income and minority students through high school and college. The tech boom and global competition increased the demand for more highly skilled workers, and scholars also noticed that adults in the lowest-income neighborhoods had not benefitted significantly from the Clinton-era jobs boom. Any effort to improve the lives of the next generation would require an improved high school degree and higher-quality college or training.

Conley's book offered an important new perspective: kids needed to be prepared academically (e.g., have solid writing, math and analytical skills), socially (e.g., able to manage their time and hold their own in a competitive class) and culturally (e.g., able to resist outside attractions or demands and willing to study for long hours). Success in college could offer a leap in economic status for many students. Even if students weren't interested in college, he noted, college preparatory skills and habits were important for landing a good, living-wage job out of high school. National think tanks and funders took note and ramped up their own work around these ideas, propelled in part by the powerful Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. By 2010, when Conley published his second book, called College and Career Ready, interest in college readiness was reaching a fever pitch among education influencers and technocrats. "In that five-year period, everything took off," Conley recalls.

STEP TWO: Develop Higher National Standards

Around the same time, education leaders across the nation began talking about what exactly would be required to get students to the next level academically. Annual news reports blared the fact that tiny countries like Singapore and Finland were outpacing the United States in international tests. State leaders were also grappling with the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, which required all children to become "proficient" in English and math, as measured by standardized tests, by 2014. Educators and parents complained loudly that NCLB forced schools, particularly those in low-income neighborhoods, to focus almost exclusively on high-stakes multiple choice exams for English and math, to the exclusion of college-oriented skills like writing, analysis and scientific exploration.

Powerfully connected education think tanks, like Achieve, called for new national standards designed to promote a coherent, college-focused curriculum. Teams of educators and policymakers began to talk about what this would look like, eventually putting together a set of detailed guidelines that would be developed into the Common Core State Standards Initiative. The Common Core requires more writing, listening, speaking and higher-level mathematical analysis than are typically taught. Students will also be required to read more nonfiction and be able to interpret "original source" texts, such as historically important speeches.

Forty-five states and the District of Columbia have signed on. These states are now working in two separate consortiums to develop their own tests for the Common Core. The goal is to have the standards and tests in all schools by the 2014-15 school year. In New York State, the Common Core standards are now in place for all grades, Pre-K to 12. The New York State Education Department launched "Common Core–aligned" tests this past spring for grades three through eight; the high school Regents exams will begin to shift next year. And the plan is to adopt the more sophisticated, computer adaptive tests now being developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). However, this testing program will be expensive to create and administer--and no one can say who will pay for it at this point. So the future of the PARRC-developed tests remains a question mark in New York.

STEP THREE: Begin to Track Students after High School

There was another important development in this period. The NYC Department of Education, the City University of New York and the state Board of Regents began to talk publically about the importance of working together to develop a well-aligned, consistent approach from pre-kindergarten through four years of college--nicknamed "P to16." A huge part of this plan involved integrating the Department of Education and CUNY data systems, recalls Josh Thomases, the department's deputy chief academic officer for instruction. This made sense, given that nearly two-thirds of CUNY's incoming freshmen were from the public schools. The two institutions had shared data in the past so the necessary hardware was in place. It was a big job and took several years of technical work in both agencies for the new system to go live.

For the first time, the Department of Education had reliable numbers on what was happening to the large number of its graduates going to CUNY. The DOE's Office of Research, Accountability and Data created a new report for schools called the "Where Are They Now" reports and gave principals their first look at the data in June 2010. These reports have since evolved, with new versions available for all school levels. Elementary school principals can see what happened to their former students in middle school and middle school principals can watch the fate of their former students in high school. The high school reports now have data on all students going to college, not just those attending CUNY. This allows principals and guidance counselors to see what kind of schools their students are attending and if their students are getting access to more competitive colleges (for example, attending four-year colleges instead of local community colleges).

This new information about NYC's graduates allows principals and teachers to see the results of their work from a novel perspective. Even the earliest versions of the reports, with which principals could only see how their CUNY-bound graduates were doing, had an impact, Thomases says. "The big surprise for principals was how many of their students were taking remedial classes," he recalls. This was an eye-opener for high schools that had been proud of the numbers they were getting into college. The reports "scared the bejesus out of them," he says. "This is challenging all of us to raise our game to the next level."

STEP FOUR: Hold Schools Accountable for Their Graduates

The "Where Are They Now" reports were initially provided to schools in the hopes that staff would push students to graduate with academic preparation and test scores high enough to avoid CUNY remedial courses. Then in fall 2012, the Department of Education introduced a new "A" to "F" grade for college and career readiness on the high schools' Progress Reports. This grade, which has been refined for the fall 2013 release, is determined by a number of factors. Schools are credited for how many students are prepared well enough avoid remediation at CUNY or, lacking that, still stay in school for three semesters after arriving. The grade also factors in the number of students who take and pass at least one high-level class, like an AP course or College Now. And it credits schools for how many students end up in meaningful places after graduation--college, vocational schools, licensed trade work or public service, like the military or Americorps.

The "College and Career Readiness" metric is worth only 10 percent of a school's overall grade, meaning that other factors like graduation rates and Regents test scores are still far more important. But it is a big change to hold school staff responsible for choices that students make after graduation. When officials went on an early roadshow to talk to principals about the Progress Report, most "were positive, or at least resigned" to the measures they felt they had some control over, like getting test scores high enough to avoid remediation, recalls Martin Kurzweil, who developed the new measures and is the department's former executive director of research, accountability and data. "But the feeling about the college enrollment numbers has been more mixed."

Now, a year after the release of that first college grade, principals are becoming more comfortable with the notion that they do have power over what happens to their students after graduation, says Simone D'Souza, Kurzweil's successor. The post-graduation success measure is an important tool for seeing if a school's guidance services are up to par, for example. Schools can also team up with nonprofits to provide programs like "summer bridge" that help graduates deal with problems that might prevent them from enrolling in college. "Just having this measure is shifting the conversation," D'Souza says.

STEP FIVE: What's Next?

The notion of college readiness is a work in progress. The effect of the Common Core and New York City's experiment in college-focused accountability is a question mark at this point, officials admit, though early results are promising. Whatever happens, Thomases says, it's unlikely that the city and the nation will return to the days when the focus was only on high school graduation rates. "It's the kind of thing that none of us can walk back from," he says.


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