Making A Meaningful Diploma

September 19, 2016

Editor's note: This column originally appeared in Grads of Life Voice.

Picture this: It’s May, and you’re dressed in your graduation cap and gown. You have taken and passed every course required. You’re about to walk across the stage to get your diploma, and with each step, you think of all the opportunities this piece of paper will afford you. But how do you know you’re really prepared?

For the past decade, states have made systematic education reforms in an effort to prepare all students to be college and career ready. Yet, depending on which state, which district, or even which school, college ready and career ready can have very different meanings for students. Typically, this results in career ready being perceived as less than college ready. And for far too many, neither meets the most basic requirement—proficiency. This means that schools are graduating students who are neither college ready nor career ready.

Career readiness and college readiness have generally been used interchangeably and are commonly understood to mean student proficiency in reading and math. In other words, if a student is on grade level in reading and math, he or she should be able to transition to college without needing to retake high school classes or enter the workforce without challenge.

If you ask business leaders what it means to be career ready, there is a good chance that you will hear more than one definition. You will hear them talk about a variety of skills—both hard and soft—as well as requirements specific to an industry or an organization. In fact, there is very little consensus in the business community—or among education organizations—on how best to define career readiness.

Implementing, measuring, and valuing college and career readiness is not a new concept. Indeed, there has been widespread consideration on improving career readiness systems in states and regions—some doing it better than others. Thirty-four states now publicly report on some type of career-focused indicator in their K-12 accountability system. While states and districts have made progress in supporting career readiness in schools, they have also faced limitations and challenges with their approaches. And none have cracked the code.

As states do the hard work of defining and implementing new statewide accountability systems aimed at preparing students for postsecondary success, it is crucial for the business community to play a leading role in helping states and districts define, implement, and measure career readiness to reflect the changing needs and requirements of the business community.

Times are changing, however. With the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the nation’s primary K-12 education law—dubbed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), there is a newfound opportunity to spotlight college and career readiness. Under the law, a great deal of flexibility is given to states, which have been tasked with defining and measuring what success looks like for all students in statewide accountability systems.

States must track progress against three required indicators and at least one optional indicator. One such indicator—postsecondary readiness—is generating a lot of buzz. In today’s economy, postsecondary readiness, or college and career readiness, is more important than ever to ensure that students are equipped with the right skills to tackle challenges and take advantage of the opportunities the future holds. With the possibility of postsecondary readiness becoming a significant part of accountability systems, states, districts, and business face the question: Is college readiness and career readiness really that different? Can postsecondary readiness be measured in a way that captures both?

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation is answering this question. Its report Career Readiness: A Business-Led Approach for Supporting K-12 Schools offers a framework for states to define postsecondary readiness and success with the support of the business community while challenging the perception that career readiness is less rigorous than college readiness. Rather, the report suggests that both play an integral role in creating a more well-rounded, better prepared student.

As states do the hard work of defining and implementing new statewide accountability systems aimed at preparing students for postsecondary success, it is crucial for the business community to play a leading role in helping states and districts define, implement, and measure career readiness to reflect the changing needs and requirements of the business community. Though the task at hand is enormous, the report outlines some ways that the business community can support state and district leaders in adopting career readiness indicators as part of their accountability systems:

  • Manage employer requirements and engagement—The business community should assign its own liaison, embedded in schools or districts, who is responsible for communicating employer partnership requirements for career programs and vetting potential talent.
  • Manage high-quality work-based learning – The business community should play a leading role in scaling up high-quality work-based learning opportunities and develop industry-validating processes to ensure that a student who has completed the experience has attained workplace skills.
  • Track the attainment of industry-recognized credentials – Employers should communicate which credentials are required or preferred for hiring purposes and take a leading role in supporting solutions that match student records with credentialing providers.
  • Endorse districts and schools that meet employer requirements – The business community should provide districts and schools with advanced levels of recognition for meeting or exceeding performance measures that matter most to employers and specific industries.
  • Evaluate state and district performance – The business community should hold states and districts accountable for performance against college and career readiness indicators. With better tracking of student outcomes, employers will have the necessary information to evaluate and improve their guidance on career readiness activities.

The opportunity for states to build a robust career readiness indicator as a meaningful part of their statewide accountability system is within reach. Will they seize it? After all, the end goal is simple—to ensure the high school diploma students receive on graduation day actually means they’re prepared to take on their future.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Caitlin Codella is director for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Center for Education and Workforce.