State Definitions of College and Career Readiness

By Madeleine Webster | Vol . 23, No. 36 / September 2015

NCSL NewsDid you know?

  • Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia have adopted statewide definitions of college and career readiness.
  • Twenty-two states will administer an assessment aligned to state standards than can be used as a college entrance exam by the 2017 school year.
  • Many states are using their definitions of college and career to better align K-12 and postsecondary education policy.

In today’s increasingly competitive economy, U.S. students are falling behind. Scores on the National Assessment for Education Progress have been stagnant for decades, 20 percent of first-year college students require remedial coursework, and a recent Gallup poll indicates that only 14 percent of Americans believe graduates are well-prepared to compete in the workforce. As the United States works to better prepare its future generations, policymakers are adopting statewide definitions of college and career readiness and determining what indicators best gauge student readiness.

State Action

Defining College and Career Readiness. As of May 2015, 33 states and the District of Columbia had adopted a statewide definition of college and career readiness. Twenty-six of these states adopted a definition that encompasses both college and career readiness, based on the belief that the skills and knowledge students need to do well in both college and career are the same. Seven states have adopted separate definitions, for either college readiness or career readiness, based on the belief that each path requires a different set of skills and knowledge. The differences, benefits and drawbacks between the two approaches have been widely discussed, and states are deciding for themselves which approach is best.

Arkansas Senate Bill 814 (2013), which defined readiness as the “acquisition of the knowledge and skills a student needs to be successful in future endeavors, including successfully completing credit-bearing, first-year courses at a postsecondary institution and embarking on a chosen career,” is a clear example of a definition adopted through state legislation. However, states don’t necessarily have to have a statute that specifically defines college and career readiness to have a statewide definition. Some states, such as Connecticut, adopted a statewide definition through its waiver applications to the federal government. Others have adopted definitions through their state boards or departments of education.

The adopted state definitions share five common components: students have certain academic knowledge; can think critically and solve problems; have communication and collaboration skills; exhibit grit and resilience; and demonstrate citizenship and community involvement. Less common requirements include students’ using technology in problem solving, developing a sense of identity, understanding diversity, and demonstrating responsibility for the environment.

Measuring College and Career Readiness. States are working to develop indicators and measurements of readiness. Policymakers want to ensure that high school graduation policies can more accurately indicate graduates’ college and career readiness. Methods for gauging a student’s readiness include college and career ready standards, assessments, high school course requirements, college admissions requirements and postsecondary course placement.

Closing the Expectations Gap, an annual report by Achieve, highlights state progress in implementing readiness indicators. The 2015 edition reports that almost all 50 states have adopted college and career ready standards. In addition, 23 states and the District of Colombia now require students to take courses in English language arts and mathematics aligned to state college and career ready standards.

Thirty-five states use end-of-course examinations to ensure student mastery of state standards, and 22 states plan to administer an assessment aligned to state standards that can be used for college entrance or course placement. States such as Georgia are developing innovative indicators as well, such as Georgia Senate Bill 2 (2015), which allows students who complete certain postsecondary coursework while in high school to count that coursework toward high school graduation requirements.

Federal Action

In 2010, as part of other ongoing efforts to improve college and career readiness in U.S. students, the federal government began encouraging states to adopt “college and career ready standards” through the Race to the Top grant program. This program made $4.35 billion available to states to advance education policies, including the aforementioned standards, and to implement high-quality assessments and other key reforms.

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