College & Career Readiness

The new fad in high school reform seems to be moving beyond the diploma, into the postsecondary realm.  Preparing students for the 21st century, for college and/or a career, this is what the educationistas have been parading as a sort of paradigm-shift in education.  It’s also part of the standard call for reform emanating from corporations and billionaire philanthropists, along with the Obama administration and Sec. Arne Duncan.

You hear it from Jeb Bush, charter school operators, the Education Equality Project, plus it’s a prominent part of Obama’s blueprint for ESEA revision.  And, let’s be fair, it is a very meaningful objective.  A diploma only serves a purpose insofar as it is a proxy for true achievement and preparation for what comes next.  One reason “postsecondary readiness” is so popular is that it’s pretty non-controversial.  But what does it mean?

I worry about the impact of this on assessments.  The same people who are pushing college & career readiness have been promoting high-stakes standardized tests for quite a long time.  The incoming #2 for NYC Schools, Shael Suransky, recently told the New York Times that he wants “more and better tests.”  Better tests, absolutely, but more?  Is that possible?

If our new metric for success is postsecondary readiness, what do assessments look like?  Are the same one-size-fits-all standardized tests appropriate to measure such a diverse goal?  With extremely diverse students populating our schools, successful postsecondary outcomes are just as diverse.  What is the impact, then, of holding all students up to the same bar in math and ELA?  Of course proficiency in these basic subjects is important for all students, but with the new measure of success being postsecondary readiness, general “proficiency” becomes meaningless.

If I were a principal, preparing my students for high-stakes tests would fall to the bottom of my list of priorities immediately.  To prepare students for life after high school, they need opportunities to explore their interests and learn how to pursue them.  I was lucky to find my way to a liberal arts college where I could explore a variety of disciplines and subjects before finding my passion.  I was also extremely lucky to receive financial aid and be able to afford an elite university which provided me with these opportunities.  But many of our public school students are not so lucky.

We need to resist the shift towards test-based accountability and truly align standards with postsecondary success.  On a policy level, it’s so crucial to expand the definition of success to include all types of fulfillment and personalized success…so scoring a 4 on all your Regents exams isn’t necessarily more valuable than learning to paint and exploring that as a career.  If a student graduates high school ready to become an automotive technician but still struggles with algebra, is he or she not ready to complete high school and move forward with a lucrative, meaningful career?

Math and English standards, however rigorous and well-researched, will never deliver broad postsecondary readiness in our public schools.  Basic skills in these two disciplines provide an important foundation for future success, but there are boundaries to their usefulness.  As this link suggests, judging a student’s postsecondary readiness by these two extremely limited metrics is like buying a car based purely on top speed and estimated MPG.  While these are characteristics that will play an important role in the final purchasing decision, they are two of many.  Likewise, scores on standardized tests in math and English are also very limited; they don’t give us the information we need to know.

It’s a real problem…and the solution isn’t more tests.  It’s more trust and reliance put in teachers and principals.  If this is about improving education for everybody, how does it concern art classes?  There just isn’t a good way to measure if a student has had his or her passion enlivened by meaningful instruction.  The only legitimate measurement practice is the scaling up of New York’s “Where Are They Now?” reports, which follows specific kids.  Or, I don’t know, asking their parents, the teachers and school-based professionals who know these kids best.  I think many policy makers would be surprised to find how strong a predictor teacher confidence might be for postsecondary success.


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