In November of 2012, the Chancellor of New York City’s Department of Education issued a press release announcing that, for the first time, the city’s Progress Reports would hold all high schools accountable for getting students academically “college ready” and for their graduates’ college enrollment rates. For the next few years, the metric will remain a relatively small part of a school’s overall Progress Report grade (10%), because it is so new. But the Department has noted that the weight of the readiness score will increase with time. The question is: Is the score measuring – and valuing – the right indicators of college and career readiness?
The College and Career Readiness initiative of the NYC Department of Education has focused, almost exclusively, on academic readiness. In its name, the DOE has pushed forward the shift to the Common Core Standards, increased Regents score pass rates, and encouraged schools to provide opportunities for students to take courses associated with college success. The actual components of the metric are aligned to this academic focus: standardized tests scores (Regents/SAT/ACT/CUNY Assessment Test), the number of students who successfully complete “advanced” or “college level” classes, and college matriculation rates. The Department of Education has noted that looking at college matriculation rates is, “meant to measure, to some degree, whether students got the help they needed to get into college or take advantage of other promising postgraduate opportunities. However, the measure does not capture the quality of advisement or how much help students got from the school.”
By failing to attend to the issues of quality of advisement and student support, New York City risks focusing far too narrowly on core academic subjects, and failing to put in place supports and indicators relating to a wider set of skills and knowledge that are central to college and career readiness. These skills and knowledge are built by curriculum and experiences that range beyond core subjects (e.g. math, science, history, etc.), including a range of arts, internships, experiences in the world of work, and, critically for first-generation to college students, exploration of the world of higher education. Recent research has focused on the ways that such experiences can help to build the kind of teamwork, problem-solving and organizational skills, as well as tenacity and “grit” that lead to persistence through and success in higher education.
An increased focus on academic rigor – and neglect of the knowledge, skills and experiences outlined above – is unlikely to lead to increased college access and success for the first-generation to college students in whose name much of this work is being done. Douglas Ready and Thomas Hatch et al, argue that the narrow focus on academic achievement at the expense of other areas is likely to backfire:
For those students who are already off the track for college when they begin school and make little or no progress during their high school careers…benchmark assessments, advanced classes, Algebra 1, Regents exams, AP courses, AP exams and other graduation and college entrance requirements (and the disconnect between them) look more like a system of obstacles.
Furthermore, others have pointed to a second group for whom increased academic rigor will not address college and career readiness: students whose academic scores prove them ready for higher education, but who failed to enroll for reasons directly related to lack of knowledge of the post-secondary landscape and lack of guidance and advisement. Roderick et al (2008) demonstrate this in their study of students in Chicago public schools:
At the end of senior year, only 38% of these students with the highest qualifications enrolled in a very selective college…the most qualified students were just as likely to not enroll in college or enroll in a college far below their match (37%) as they were to enroll in a very selective college.
Thus, for some of the first-generation students at whom these reforms are aimed, they may prove simply ineffective at combating the real issue; for others, they risk being outright damaging.
The good news is that research shows that developing a school’s college-going culture and expanding opportunities to develop students’ non-cognitive skills can have a strong impact on college matriculation and persistence for first-generation-to-college students. As such, we recommend a shift to reflect a far broader definition of college and career readiness at both the student and school-level, and the provision of resources to support schools in implementing these broader definitions.
- Student Level: The development of non-cognitive skills associated with college and career readiness through increased access to internships, the arts, youth leadership programs, and opportunities in the world of work, during school time and supported by school resources. These experiences help students develop characteristics like conscientiousness or grit, tenacity, teamwork, and problem solving; they also help students to understand the pathways from personal interests and skills, to fields of study in college, to careers.
- School Level: The development of a strong college-going culture that expands the role schools take in supporting students’ transition to higher education. Such work involves the creation of opportunities for students and their families to develop their knowledge and understanding of post-secondary options and get the advisement they need throughout it. It also demands training and resources for staff that allow them to help students and families gather information about colleges, application processes, and financial aid. To accomplish this the NYC Department of Education needs to: a) provide schools with a full-time, year-round, dedicated college counselor with a caseload no greater than 100 who can support students individually through the college search, application, and enrollment process; b) connect schools with curriculum and training to be able to provide students and families with opportunities to learn about post-secondary options beginning in 9th grade; c) ease current restrictions on granting course credit for non-academic classes, which make it very difficult for schools to devote time and resources to things like internships, college and career exploration, youth leadership programs, and the arts.
The NYC Department of Education must shift the balance – or rather the imbalance – away from a narrow focus on academics and test scores and towards engaging experiences and opportunities that lend themselves to students building their college and career knowledge and developing the non-cognitive skills associated with post-secondary success.
Janice Bloom and Lori Chajet are the Co-Directors of College Access: Research & Action.
 Initially the Department of Education was only going to give schools “points” for students who enrolled in college the semester following graduation, but after some pressure from educators who rejected the narrow scope of the metric, the Department of Education expanded the metric to include military, vocational training or public service programs (Cramer; April 18, 2012)
 After one year of implementing the metric, the DOE made a change regarding the first measure tied exclusively to test scores, stating: “In this upcoming Progress Report, schools will also get credit for students who made it through at least three semesters of college, no matter their post-grad scores, (The fact that they persisted in college for more than a year demonstrates that, despite their test scores, the students were prepared for college to some degree.)”