A program that conflates college and career readiness may unnecessarily discourage students without college aspirations.
States and districts across the United States have put a lot of energy into various college and career readiness initiatives, often with an emphasis on preparing students for postsecondary education that will, in turn, help them succeed in the labor market. But are these efforts effective? And what do they do to help work-bound students who are unlikely to attend college? What strategies could educators and school leaders use to better support these students?
We examine these questions using the case of Florida’s College and Career Readiness Initiative (FCCRI), a program in which high schools administered the statewide community college placement test to mid-performing students (i.e., students scoring a 2 or 3 in reading and 2, 3, or 4 in math on the grade 10 Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test) in their junior year and enrolled those scoring below college-ready in a senior-year “college readiness and success” (CRS) course. When the FCCRI began in 2008-09, student participation in both the college readiness testing and the CRS courses was voluntary. In 2011-12, participation in both components became mandatory for targeted students. The mandatory FCCRI continued through 2014-15, but new legislation signed in April 2015 eliminated the requirements for common placement testing and CRS courses.
The Florida Department of Education set CRS course standards, but there was wide discretion at the local level in implementation and selection of curricular materials. Thus, although CRS courses shared a title, there were differences in implementation both within and across schools. However, math CRS courses commonly reviewed Algebra 1, Geometry, and Algebra 2. English CRS courses often resembled traditional English 4 courses, although many teachers integrated test preparation and study skills. Teachers tended to be certified in the same subject area as the CRS course that they taught, and they usually continued teaching those courses. The state provided no funding for the development of CRS courses or for offering professional development for teachers of these courses. Some districts provided professional development at the local level, but these were usually one-time events.
The idea behind the FCCRI was that placement testing would help schools ensure that they were offering instruction and support that aligned with what students would need to enter postsecondary programs. Such alignment has been identified as one of the key methods for improving college and career readiness and potentially raising college completion (Conley, 2007).
Teachers’ perspectives on FCCRI college and career readiness reforms
Because research finds reforms are most likely to succeed with teacher support (Spillane, 2006), we decided to examine teachers’ views on the FCCRI by surveying 225 teachers of the senior-year CRS courses to learn more about the effectiveness of the reform according to those on the front line. Our findings may inform states considering similar initiatives about where the reform is most effective, which students are poorly served, and how they might be better helped.
The initiative underemphasizes career readiness.
When teachers were asked to rate the effectiveness of the FCCRI, teachers in schools where most students were college bound rated the program more highly than did teachers in schools with large populations of students who expected to enter the workforce immediately after high school. In essence, the latter group of teachers wanted the FCCRI to assess career readiness, not just readiness for college.
The Florida Department of Education (2014) built the FCCRI around this definition of college and career ready:
Students are considered college and career ready when they have the knowledge, skills, and academic preparation needed to enroll and succeed in introductory college credit-bearing courses within an associate or baccalaureate degree program without the need for remediation.
Like other prominent organizations (e.g., ACT, Achieve), the FCCRI targets college-level academic skills, as measured in the community college placement test, which are seen as indicating students’ preparation to meet the demands of both college and the labor market. The assumption is that the same skills are needed for college and career success.
Many teachers, however, believe that the FCCRI has defined college and career readiness too narrowly, focusing too much on the college side of the equation. Countering the assumption that college and career readiness are one and the same, they object to the implicit message within this definition, which suggests that students who receive low scores on the college placement test have no chance of succeeding in adult life. Not only does that message undermine efforts to provide career advice to those students — who might be tempted to ask why, if they’re destined to fail, they should even bother to enroll in job training — but it is simply not true. Many occupational certificate programs that lead to well-paying middle-class jobs (such as airplane mechanics, auto repair mechanics, computer technicians, HVAC services, manufacturing workers, medical aides, and elevator repair workers) do not require entering students to test as college-ready (Rosenbaum et al., 2017). The focus on a placement test that isn’t necessary for such postsecondary programs poses a high standard that many students (and their teachers) see as unattainable, and it prevents some students from seeing possible routes to future success.
The reform offers insufficient options for lower-performing students.
In our survey of teachers of CRS courses, we asked whether most of the students in their class were capable of obtaining a bachelor’s degree, associate’s degree, or certificate. Only 20% of teachers believe most of their students will be able to attain a bachelor’s degree. In contrast, twice as many teachers (40%) think most of their students will be able to finish an associate’s degree, and 49% believe most of their students can finish a certificate. Despite the FCCRI focus on readiness for bachelor’s degrees, very few teachers think most of their students can attain these degrees, and most teachers believe that the majority of their students are not even able to earn even a certificate.
CRS classes are heterogeneous in terms of students’ academic performance and college intentions, which poses an additional difficulty. Teachers often suggest, and sometimes state outright, that many of their students are disengaged in CRS courses because they see no point in them — they already doubted their own college potential, and their college placement score only confirmed their suspicion. Contrary to the FCCRI’s assumption that all students are motivated to prepare for college, teachers report that many students do not see college as attainable for them, and neither FCCRI nor the school provides any evidence to suggest otherwise.
One English teacher explains the problem in this way: “It is very difficult to motivate the students who are our lowest scoring students to appreciate a class named ‘College Readiness’. . . the title frustrates them, and they don’t want to take the course seriously.” When students see college as beyond their reach, how can teachers motivate them to work hard in a course purportedly designed to prepare them for college?
Other teachers mention the difficulty of reaching students whose goals are unclear. Many specifically advocate separating college-bound students from others. For example, one teacher recommends that the school “only have the people who want to go to college in the [CRS] class,” while another would prefer “this class NOT to be required.” One teacher believes “we have populated the [college-prep] class with the wrong students,” who cannot see why they are in a college prep class. Some teachers indicated that they believed the CRS courses focused too much on academic skills needed to test college-ready in math or English. They believed that the students who were not college bound would be better off taking a different course that would focus on practical math and applied communications.
What school leaders can do
Broaden the definition of college and career readiness.
While bachelor’s and associate degrees require college-level academic skills, certificates often do not. In fact, even without passing the placement test, students can enter college certificate programs and earn credentials that qualify them for high-demand mid-skill jobs, often without enrolling in remedial classes (Carnevale et al., 2012; Holzer, 2012).
Teachers can seek to improve students’ career readiness with lessons that present career information and teach practical skills for high school seniors who do not plan to attend college. For instance, one of the survey respondents, a math teacher, taught bookkeeping skills to her CRS students; an English teacher taught writing business memos; another had students write essays about a career that interested them. Many others reported that they want to help all their students improve their career options, including those who cannot pass the placement test, and many of them called for their high schools to offer more career courses, as experts often recommend (Stone & Lewis, 2012).
Many teachers recognize the limits of a high school diploma, they know about jobs that don’t seem to require college academic skills, and they want “college and career readiness” to be defined more broadly to serve the students who do not pass the placement test. Yet, they do not necessarily know which of the alternatives to higher education, if any, would best fit these students. Perhaps discouraged by the FCCRI claims about college-readiness standards, and by the low profile of occupational certificate programs in community colleges, some teachers advocate steering students toward for-profit colleges, despite their negative publicity and reports of fraud. At least, they believe, students might be motivated to enroll in and complete these for-profit programs, given their advertised claims to prepare students for successful careers.
Increase awareness of occupational programs at community colleges.
While occupational programs are widely advertised by for-profit colleges, community colleges tend to downplay their own occupational courses of study, making much greater efforts to advertise their programs that allow young students to transfer credits toward bachelor’s degrees. In fact, when we examined community college websites to find out what they said about their occupational certificate programs, we often had to follow several links, many of them hidden under the heading “adult education” (which late adolescents tend to ignore, assuming that the label doesn’t pertain to them). We’re quite familiar with these kinds of programs, but even for us it was difficult to find the right information and make sense of the given program requirements. It’s hardly surprising, then, that most high school teachers, counselors, and administrators know little about these options.
Yet, such occupational programs do offer employment opportunities with good pay and perhaps a path toward higher degrees for students who want to pursue them later on. Research based on national data sets suggests that many students with low test scores are capable of completing these certificate programs and going on to earn salaries comparable to peers who had higher scores on college-readiness tests (Rosenbaum et al., 2017). In fact, the earnings distributions of bachelor’s and certificate holders overlap a great deal, with one-quarter of certificate holders earning more than most who have a bachelor’s degree (Carnevale et al., 2012).
To examine the outcomes of a sample of sub-bachelor’s programs, we analyzed Florida’s Smart College Choice website, which uses Florida’s integrated data system to provide useful information about the requirements and career outcomes of various college programs. We computed statewide career outcomes by grouping various occupational programs into three categories: associate degree programs, career certificate programs, and college-credit certificate programs. The first set of programs requires scoring college-ready on the placement test, the second set mostly does not, and the third set of programs varies by field. Yet, we find that employment outcomes are often similar across all three sets of programs. Unfortunately, teachers and students rarely know this.
We have previously proposed creating college scorecards with student outcome data to demonstrate that certificates and applied degrees are good options for promoting career success (Rosenbaum et al., 2016). We suspect teachers would be eager to have this information and to inform students about career options that do not require passing placement tests. Contrary to FCCRI claims that students must pass the placement test to benefit from college, these college programs offer “career readiness” without “college readiness.” If students realized this, it is likely that many work-bound students could attend and greatly benefit from community college, too.
The FCCRI was an impressive effort to improve alignment between high schools and colleges. However, its narrow conception of career readiness discouraged many students and undermined its effectiveness. Reforms like the FCCRI could better live up to the stated goal of supporting college and career readiness by including more career options for all students.
Carnevale, A., Jayasundera, T., & Hanson, A. (2012). Five ways that pay along the way to the BA. Washington, DC: Georgetown Public Policy Institute.
Conley, D.T. (2007). Redefining college readiness, Volume 3. Eugene, OR: Educational Policy Improvement Center.
Florida Department of Education (2014). College and career readiness. Tallahassee, FL: Author. www.fldoe.org/fcs/collegecareerreadiness.asp
Holzer, H.J. (2012). Good workers for good jobs: Improving education and workforce systems in the US. IZA Journal of Labor Policy, 1 (1), 5.
Rosenbaum, J.E., Ahearn, C., & Rosenbaum, J. (2016). The community college option. Educational Leadership, 73 (6), 48-53.
Rosenbaum, J., Ahearn, C.E., & Rosenbaum, J.E. (2017). Bridging the gaps: College pathways to career success. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation Press.
Spillane, J. (2006). Standards deviation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Stone, J.R. & Lewis, M.V. (2012). College and career ready in the 21st century: Making high school matter. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Citation: Mokher, C.G., Rosenbaum, J.E., Gable, A., Ahearn, C., & Jacobson, L. (2018). Ready for what? Confusion around college and career readiness. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (4), 40-43.