Read any article on education these days, and chances are you'll come across the words "college- and career-ready." It's the catchphrase du jour – the goal of almost every education reformer on both the right and the left.
It's also the aim of the Common Core State Standards for student academic achievement across America, a draft report released earlier this month by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.
In addition, the Obama administration's recently released proposal for rewriting the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 calls for doing away with the 2014 goal of 100 percent proficiency in reading and math in favor of getting all students college- and career-ready by the time they graduate from high school.
Many education advocacy groups have already shifted their focus from simply raising graduation rates to making sure that students who graduate are ready for the next step.
But it's not always clear how such a shift toward college- and career- readiness standards would change the current education system.
What does 'college- and career-ready' mean?
Loosely, it means ensuring that students are prepared for college-level courses upon matriculation, or for a job that can support a family.
Another definition, suggested by Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, is whatever skills are required to succeed in credit-bearing courses at the community-college level.
Shouldn't graduation from high school mean that students are ready for the next step?
Currently, between 30 and 40 percent of students enrolling in college require at least one remedial class. Such courses don't give credits, don't qualify for tuition aid, and contribute to America's abysmal college completion rate: About half of all students who start college never finish. In a survey that the standards-advocate group Achieve conducted several years ago, employers said that about 40 percent of the high school graduates they hired didn't have the skills to advance in their jobs.
Is there agreement on what the standards should be?
The Common Core standards are the ones with the most buy-in so far. They emphasize cognitive skills – such as the ability to analyze a text coherently; write clearly and logically; and demonstrate precise, strategic mathematical thinking – in addition to core subject knowledge.
Some educators say an even broader range of attributes is necessary to succeed in college.
Any true measurement of college readiness has to include self-management skills and knowledge about the culture of college – including how to choose and apply to the right one – as well as academic skills and content knowledge, says David Conley, director of the Center for Educational Policy Research at the University of Oregon in Eugene.
"What students need to know in high school is not every detail," says Professor Conley. "They need a structure of knowledge, big ideas, and large organizing concepts."
Is there a difference between college and career readiness?
It depends on whom you ask. The skills needed in college and at a job with a viable career path are very similar, says Mike Cohen, president of Achieve. This indicates, he adds, that high schools should be preparing every student for college-level work.
Others say there are some distinctions between college and job preparedness, although less research has been done on career readiness.
"They need to be a little more clear about what jobs they're really referencing," says Michael Kirst, a professor emeritus of education at Stanford University in California, who adds that the lack of specificity about "career readiness" is a weakness of the proposed common standards.
What progress has already been made?
Thirty-one states now have college- and career-ready standards, according to an Achieve report this year. That's up from the three that the organization counted five years ago.
Eight states, meanwhile, have signed on with Mr. Tucker's organization to begin measuring how well students measure up to such standards.
What tools do we have to measure college and career readiness?
Very few, which leads some critics to say that reformers are getting ahead of themselves. Almost everyone agrees that the current exams – generally computer-scored, multiple-choice tests designed for efficiency – are poor at measuring the sort of complex analytical skills and reasoning that are key to college readiness. The Obama administration has promised $350 million to help states develop good assessments.
Conley, of the University of Oregon, envisions a combination of teachers' assessments of skills that are hard to measure on tests and exams that require more sophisticated student responses, which will be graded partly by the teacher and partly by the state.
"It's harder to measure these skills, but it's not impossible," says Tucker. "The only way you can find out if students can write a decent 20-page history research paper is to ask them to write a 20-page research paper."
Is this a real change or just a repackaging of old goals?
Changing the standards without changing curricula, teacher training, and accountability would do little, but most advocates of college and career readiness hope it will eventually affect every aspect of the current system.
"Up until this time, our testing system has been designed as normative tests: Compare student A to all other students," says Tucker. "Now we're saying, here's a fixed standard and we have to get all or almost all kids to it. That's a shift of enormous proportions."
The change is much needed, says Conley. "If we don't get this right, I have a hard time seeing how the United States economy is going to maintain its place in the world. If we create two classes of people in this society – those who have access to these kinds of cognitive strategies and knowledge jobs and those who don't – the gap is going to continue to grow dramatically."