Preparing Students for the World of Work: The Need for Career Readiness Data

Employers across the country are struggling to find qualified talent. Positions go unfilled for months at a time while the nation continues to have an unreasonably high unemployment rate. Even as the economy begins to improve, persistent skills shortages continue to threaten the business community’s ability to grow and compete. With much of the discourse surrounding education reform centered on the ability of students to access and complete college, student preparation for careers is often an afterthought.

States have recognized the challenge and taken proactive measures to help students better prepare for their futures by adopting more rigorous college- and career-ready standards. Included in this mix are more than 40 states and the District of Columbia that have signed on to the Common Core State Standards, which “are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers.” Common Core provides the baseline for all students to be ready for careers or college, leading to their eventual participation in the workforce.

While there is newfound attention and focus on preparing youth for careers, there is still a need to explore the meaning of “career readiness” and how it should be measured. There are proven and accepted measures for college readiness, such as ACT and SAT, that identify whether a student has the fundamental academic skills to enter and succeed in college-level, credit-bearing courses, without the need for remediation. Given the ACT's and SAT’s widespread use and score reporting, we can evaluate how well states are preparing students for college. Education experts have investigated other factors that contribute to college readiness, including academic behaviors and ability to navigate the college experience.  

Common Core represents a strong step in the right direction for preparing students for careers. At the same time, there are a variety of perspectives on the meaning of career readiness. Most definitions delineate a combination of skills and experiences that inform a student’s preparation for careers. Some stress the need for proficiency in academics, such as the ability to read and write as well as use math and basic technology. Others argue for more cognitive skills, such as the ability to think critically, problem solve, and locate information. Then there are those definitions that articulate the need for “soft” skills, which cover interpersonal and social behaviors like working effectively in teams, conducting oneself professionally, communicating effectively, and managing time. When employers talk about career readiness, it is usually a combination of all of the above.

In Leaders & Laggards we constructed a measure of college and career readiness out of the metrics available today, which are not without blind spots. While the high school graduation rate is a measure of success for all students, AP exams and the chance at college are most likely measures of only the highest-performing students. That is, states could score highly on those two metrics by maximizing the performance of their top students as much or more than by getting more low-performing students over the threshold. Unfortunately, without better data on post–high school outcomes of average and below-average students, these are the best data at our disposal.

There is no single accountability metric, such as graduation rate, to use for institutions tasked with preparing youth for careers. Instead, there are promising practices and opportunities that can help shape our education system to be more responsive to the needs of employers. Examples include:

  • Vendors are providing assessments that measure applied and foundational skills for career readiness. ACT offers a series of assessments that when completed together culminate in the National Career Readiness Certificate, a credential that is gaining traction among employers. In addition, full-service assessment provider NOCTI offers a selection of assessments that measure workplace fundamentals as well as technical skills for a variety of career pathways.
  • School districts are experimenting with connecting learning in the classroom to industry-recognized credentials, such as the National Association of Manufacturers’ stackable credentialing sequence and CompTIA’s information technology (IT) certifications. Digital badges and other alternative credentialing systems are also gaining popularity, particularly when they are targeted to in-demand skills or linked to work-based learning experiences like internships. 
  • In California, Linked Learning communities have students declare career majors in high school, where they can complete a series of courses tied to their preferred career pathway while also receiving career advising. Student selection, persistence, and completion of career pathway programs can inform teacher and school accountability systems. 

As another means to validate career readiness, states could use linked education and workforce longitudinal data systems to incorporate employment rates and earnings as part of school accountability. While states and school districts are committed to ensuring that all students graduate high school ready for college and careers, there is a pressing need to ensure that education systems are held accountable for achieving both objectives, such as via the Common Core. An important next step will be learning from promising practices in the field and adopting well-recognized definitions and measures for career readiness that are accepted not only by schools and the communities they serve but also by employers.