College readiness first, students joining the workforce second

College readiness first, students joining the workforce second

(Ariz.) Like many states, Arizona has struggled to strike a balance between ensuring kids are adequately prepared to enter the workforce or succeed in college–but new legislation has signaled a definitive shift toward promoting higher education.

One bill would require a checklist be included on all students' report cards that shows their progress in meeting the admissions requirements for the state universities; the second bill would allow all 11th graders to take a standardized college entrance exam such as the SAT or ACT at no cost to them.

Often, the urge to push all students toward higher education stems from the sort of thinking common in the 1960s and 1970s, according to Maria Ferguson, executive director of the Center on Education Policy, based in D.C. Ferguson noted that back then, career technical education and vocational classes were considered the pathways for the "dumb kids" who would not be able to pursue college. And while many policymakers in education no longer see it that way, such thinking still persists and can hinder states’ progress in developing career readiness standards, she said.

“While all students should be prepared for both college and career and be given the chance to choose their own pathway, some students simply do not want to follow the college route or need some additional time before they go,” Ferguson said in an email to Cabinet Report. “Again, because career preparation is considered the lesser pathway, states sometimes have a hard time incorporating it into their education policies.”

Many states continue to grapple with defining career readiness and establishing standards as policymakers have sought to both educate students and prepare them for work in the 21st Century. While states such as Georgia have in place an extensive approach to prepare students for the workforce that begins in first grade and intensifies through offer comprehensive in-class lessons, assessments and job trainings in 96 different career pathways, most rely on industry certificates or different versions of occupational skills assessments for a select few career options.

Issues also stem from the fact that career readiness is more difficult to measure. Whereas college readiness can largely be determined through academic outcomes, measuring skills and abilities that will make someone successful in the workplace is not so simple, Ferguson said.

In Arizona’s most recent state budget, Gov. Doug Ducey restored $29 million in funding for highly effective and in-demand CTE programs that promote learning outside the classroom.

But Kevin Welner, director of the Colorado-based National Education Policy Center, said Arizona’s newfound focus on first ensuring those kids who do want to go to college are able to is the right move.

Too often, he said, it is lower-income students who are funneled into lower-quality CTE programs while upper-class students continue to enroll in college and earn degrees in higher paying fields, furthering the stratification between rich and poor down the line. To ensure that does not happen, Arizona lawmakers must first create an equal playing field for all students who would choose the path toward higher education, Welner explained.

“What Arizona might be trying to do is maintain universally high expectations,” Welner said in an email. “If accompanied by strong supports for students and their teachers, that outcome goal is great, and it needn’t be done in a way that forecloses development of high-quality CTE options.”

According to a 2015 Arizona Board of Regents study, fewer than half of Arizona students were eligible for admission into the state's three universities. Additionally, less than one-third of students in Phoenix tend to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

Under a bill authored by Rep. Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, districts would be required to include a checklist on students’ report cards showing their progress in meeting the admissions requirements for the state's three public universities, and explain to students the financial-aid process.

A separate bill, authored by Rep. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, would require the State Board of Education to approve a standardized college entrance exam for all students in 11th grade to take at no cost to them. The board would also be required to make the college exam and career readiness assessments that test work skills available to high school seniors.

Although Welner said providing entrance exams to students for free is a good step, the state must also be certain that students are prepared to pass those tests and succeed in college.

“My experience has been that school district or state help in paying for–and expecting widespread taking of–the college admissions tests is beneficial,” Welner said. “But again, offering those tests won’t help much without first providing those students with rich opportunities to learn.”