Building California’s initial college, career readiness metric could prove challenging

May 25, 2016

Millikan High juniors review SAT problems during a recent lesson at their Long Beach campus.

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A new metric to evaluate how well California high schools prepare students for college and careers could include everything from Advanced Placement scores and career technical education enrollment figures to the number of bilingual graduates.

State education officials are considering at least a dozen elements as they create California’s first tool to gauge college and career readiness at high schools, a component that would meet new guidelines set by both the federal Every Student Succeeds Act and the state’s Local Control Funding Formula.

The state Board of Education earlier this month voted to direct Department of Education staff to develop a college and career readiness metric that could be adopted in September and implemented in the 2017-18 school year.

“We all agree this is an important one. We should figure out what all it should contain,” said board member Trish Williams. “It could give a picture of what a school is doing to provide a lot of opportunities for a lot of diverse needs of the kids.”

State Department of Education officials are expected to offer a preliminary version of the college and career readiness metric when the Board of Education meets July 13-14. Board members have also said it’s likely any adopted metric would be updated in coming years as more research on how to best measure college and career readiness becomes available.

Work on a so-called “college and career indicator” actually began in 2014 as the state transitioned to the Common Core State Standards, which list as a primary goal preparing more students for college and careers. But it was unclear when or how the metric could be implemented until last week, when the Board of Education decided the time had come for the state to create a new comprehensive school accountability system to replace the Academic Performance Index. The API primarily used state test scores to measure school quality. For high schools, the API also included graduation rates, but no other element related to college and career readiness.

“It could give a picture of what a school is doing to provide a lot of opportunities for a lot of diverse needs of the kids,” said Trish Williams, State Board of Education.

Over the past two years, consultants and committees have studied what a college and career readiness metric should include, with the underlying goal of developing a system that is “reliable and fair to all schools,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson.

In a February memo to the Board of Education, Torlakson outlined a series of measures his department had reviewed for possible inclusion in the new metric. Here are some of those options:

The new metric could include some or all of these elements, or it could incorporate others that officials have not yet studied, officials said. The challenge until now has been building a metric that takes into account the different goals prioritized across California’s high schools, the department’s Deputy Superintendent Keric Ashley told board members earlier this month.

“Some schools are more focused on sending kids to a college or university. Other schools are more focused on sending kids into either a career immediately or into a training program,” he said. “We would not want to advantage or disadvantage schools in a system trying to use these different elements.”

Additionally, some educators have warned that relying too heavily on AP, SAT and ACT data could unfairly hurt high schools in rural and low-income communities, which traditionally have fewer AP course offerings and where participation rates in college entrance exams are generally lower.

Ashley has said that measuring the quality of technical education courses and career pathways across schools might also present a challenge because the state has no uniform audit to ensure the quality of these types of programs.

“All CTE pathways aren’t the same. Some require just two courses, others have three or four,” he said. “There is some unevenness in the degree of scrutiny in the data (schools) report to us.”

David Conley, who served as director of the Education Policy Improvement Center, a group contracted by the state in 2014 to study the creation of a college and career readiness metric, also looked at AP, ACT and SAT exam results as possible elements to include.

But Conley now says that because many schools had a majority of students who did not take these tests, the scores would not be the most reliable measure for statewide comparisons.

Instead, Conley said, a better measure is a school’s “course-taking behavior” — an evaluation based on the rate of students enrolled in courses that have been accredited or audited to show they prepare students for postsecondary options.

In California, these courses would generally be AP courses, which are audited by the College Board; and the A-G coursework, which is regularly audited by the UC system to ensure that the courses comply with the system’s rigorous admissions standards.

Another option, Conley said, was a measure of the rate of students enrolled in Career Technical Education pathways that directly lead to certificates or associate degrees, or the rate of students who transfer to four-year universities to pursue technical careers. However, Conley also said that the process for vetting the quality of some of those programs still remains inconsistent.

Michael Matsuda, superintendent at Anaheim Union High School District, said much of the discussion surrounding a new metric has focused largely on college readiness, leaving the career readiness piece mostly as an afterthought.

“When you talk to the business folks about what they’re looking for in prospective employees, they’re not talking about SAT scores,” he said. “They want students who are able to communicate clearly and have an ability to think critically and problem solve. I’m not sure how many of these college readiness metrics can really measure some of these skills.”

Matsuda said some programs in Anaheim Union high schools teach students how to interview in a job application setting and how to find internships in career fields they’re interested in. The district also teams students with professional mentors, who help guide them into technical training programs.

“For these students, how valid can an SAT score be in predicting career success?” he said.

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