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New Report: States Need to Focus More on College Readiness in ESSA Plans

By Kevin Mahnken | March 2, 2017

Photo: Getty Images
You might say that implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the sweeping federal education law passed with bipartisan support in 2015, is up in the air right now. With some states facing an April deadline to submit proposals for how they’ll hold their schools responsible for student results, House Republicans have voted to kill Obama-era regulations that were issued to guide states in constructing their accountability systems.

Some say the rollback will restore ESSA’s original intent of providing states maximal leeway, unencumbered by federal interference. But the near-term result is a moment of uncertainty as education officials around the country decide on the standards they will use to determine success in schools — and when to intervene when those standards aren’t met.

This week, the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Education Strategy Group have stepped out of the haze with a new report, “Destination Known: Valuing College and Career Readiness in State Accountability Systems.” Building on earlier work on K-12 workforce preparation, the paper stresses the urgent need for American students to progress toward some form of educational or professional attainment beyond a high school diploma, which they regard as a necessary but insufficient credential for success in today’s economy.

To that end, they advocate the use of four interconnected measures to determine college and career readiness: progression toward a post–high school credential like vocational certification or a college degree, completion of related learning and work experiences, use of industry-approved benchmarks like the ACT, and college or workforce progress measured over time.

Underlying these prescriptions is the recognition that the high school diploma, once the key to a middle-class life, is no longer enough to ensure a family-sustaining wage. As the authors observe, “nearly every job created [since the Great Recession] has gone to workers with some college education or training, leaving behind those with a high school diploma or less.” That’s why it is critical that states closely track — and publicly report — measures showing how many students are prepared not only to collect a diploma but also to succeed in the next phase of their lives.

In recent years, no state has done more to underline the importance of next-level preparation in K-12 learning than Kentucky. In its “Unbridled Learning” accountability system, put in place in 2009, the state counts college and career readiness as 20 percent of its school quality measurement.

According to Leslie Slaughter, a Kentucky Department of Education staffer who served on the CCSSO accountability working group that helped shape the new paper, Unbridled Learning reflected an agency-wide conviction that “the career readiness component needed to be brought to light” and have “intentional and distinguishing indicators.”

The report extols Kentucky as a model, praising officials there for reporting post–high school outcomes in accountability scores and for the state’s emphasis on military enrollment as a viable career pathway. As the state pivots toward a new accountability system for the ESSA era, Slaughter hopes it will go further in measuring preparedness by certifying “essential” (as opposed to “professional”) skills like timeliness and work ethic.

“We’re hearing from a lot of employers, and even our post-secondary institutions, that students are really lacking these basic, essential skills,” she said.

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