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Anthony P. Carnevale: Accurately Measuring Student Performance

The Ready, Hatch et al report is a comprehensive assessment of the factors that lead to student success. It systematically provides data-laden explanations of cognitive measures of student performance as seen through racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lenses; each of which contributes to a better understanding of what it means to be college ready in New York.

The data were largely objectively obtained performance indicators. However, one should also evaluate measures that better engage the student in the classroom – if indeed the aim is to build better tools for student development.  Specific attention should be paid to student characteristics through an assessment of non-cognitive and personality differences that influence engagement, enthusiasm for the curricula, and overall long-term goals and performance.

Academic research points to a high degree of association between non-cognitive and personality variables in determining persistence in postsecondary education and careers pathways.  For instance, conscientiousness is a well-established predictor of success in both education and occupations. Early intervention programs that emphasize and teach these “soft” skills have been shown to be especially effective, but teaching these skills in high school is also important – especially since these competencies are known to be highly malleable and can condition cognitive outcomes.  Assessments that focus on student personalities and individual characteristics can become a motivational tool, increasing choices and customized instruction that reflect diversity. Because access to the basic building blocks necessary for academic success are so firmly rooted in socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity, it is imperative that school systems pay closer attention to the teaching of non-cognitive competencies so that all students can really have a fighting chance to become college and career ready.

In addition, any assessment of student performance should also focus on a broader scope of competencies, such as problem-solving, critical thinking, deductive and inductive reasoning, all well established competencies necessary for successful student outcomes.  The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) launched in 2009, was tasked with the mission of defining the knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) students need to succeed in college and careers. With some retraction from signatory states, the CCSS purports to strengthen this connection between KSAs and curricula, though it is not yet clear whether it will do so at the expense of completion rates.

Algebra II has emerged from the fray as the flagship course associated with desired student outcomes.  Taking and successfully completing Algebra II in high school, however, is highly correlated with socioeconomic status. As the Ready, Hatch et al report shows well, the students that succeed in Algebra II are the ones who’ve had few absences from school, were less likely to be suspended, are not enrolled in individualized education programs and also have white or Asian racial and ethnic backgrounds. Algebra II continues to be the gatekeeper to college access despite the fact that it is not required in every major and less than half of workers use a level of mathematics that is roughly equivalent to Algebra II in their careers.  Separate standards for English Language Learners (ELL) are not helpful either – particularly if colleges and universities still require Algebra II of its entire incoming cohort.

The school system should also consider tracking students who enter into careers, rather than colleges, immediately after high school to better assess career readiness.  Metrics such as entry level wages, occupational choice, industry choice, job tenure or ability to work-in-field are some suggested outcome measures of career success.

Anthony P. Carnevale is the Director and Research Professor of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.