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David Conley: Test Results Should Guide Improvement

College and career readiness is about much more than test scores – even scores on tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards. Other factors must be addressed simultaneously for more students to be college and career ready. Addressing them is also the best way to see real and meaningful improvement in test scores.

Those factors include skills such as problem formulation, analytical reasoning, research, collaboration and communication, and a host of other capabilities that enable students to engage in higher level learning more effectively and efficiently. Mastery of these skills is key to students retaining more of what they are learning. Other important factors include general learning skills and dispositions such as time management, study skills, persistence, high aspirations, and goal setting. Students need these to succeed in the full range of college courses, career preparation programs, and in the workplace. Students with these capabilities not only learn better, but they retain more of what they learn, and they perform better on challenging tests as a result.

The good news is that New York’s definition of college and career readiness already includes all of these key elements. The difficult task ahead is to ensure students develop these skills. College and career readiness requires more than an obsession with moving the needle a few points on a reading or math test through ineffective skill drills. The kinds of dramatic improvements necessary to see readiness jump to the 80% or better level the new economy demands will require a rethinking of teaching and learning. Students must have the chance to apply foundational academic knowledge and skills in interesting and challenging ways, for example, using census data to analyze local living conditions and then making predictions about what their neighborhood will be like in 20 years, or researching and critiquing the claims of nutritional supplements then considering their role in a balanced diet. Of course, students will continue to learn math facts, read literature, and understand informational texts.

This year’s Common Core-aligned test results are a wake-up call in many respects. Many students who graduate from high school and rate proficient on state exams still end up in remedial courses.  Rather than bemoaning the new test results, K-12 and postsecondary educators have the opportunity to let students know they need to be ready to be challenged at a higher level, to go deeper in their understanding and use of the key content knowledge, and to take greater ownership of their learning. Just doing what the teacher says is not enough anymore. Students need to be setting high goals for themselves and then being supported by educators as they seek to achieve those goals. Teachers and students need to view test results not as ends in themselves but as means to pinpoint areas in need of improvement. Having done so, they must resist the temptation to focus on test prep and instead delve more deeply into key content. This is how real improvement will come about.

The vast majority of students can be made ready for college and careers, but only through an approach that views readiness as more complex than a simple score on an English/Language Arts and a mathematics test. These scores are like taking the temperature of the school system, but they are not the full measure of overall academic wellness. Evidence of deeper learning and the full range of knowledge, skills, and dispositions associated with college and career success will paint a more complete picture.

New York’s new test scores represent a much clearer and appropriate measure of where students really stand academically. Now, educators and students alike have a clearer target toward which to aim. Getting there requires engaging students through challenging academic activities that also help them develop key learning skills. The new measure of college and career readiness needs to be broader and more clearly focused on the wider range of the skills, knowledge, and capacities that are necessary for success in college and careers.

Dr. David T. Conley is the founder, chief executive officer, and chief strategy officer of EPIC, Educational Policy Improvement Center and is a Professor at the University of Oregon.