Q&A: David Conley on College & Career Readiness

EdTech

David Conley is a national leader in defining and promoting college and career readiness. Dr. Conley is CEO of the Educational Policy Improvement Center (EPIC) and a professor at the University of Oregon. He’s the author of College Knowledge and College and Career Ready. Since Conley spoke about Getting Serious about College and Career Readiness and Teaching & Testing the Common Core at an assessment conference a few weeks ago, we’ve been corresponding about the subject. Here’s a summary.

GS: What is college-career readiness?

DC: We think of it as readiness across multiple dimensions with alignment among student skills, interests, aspirations, and their postsecondary objectives.

Most students aspire to continue their education beyond high school but their educational outcomes do not end up aligning with outcomes and that’s particularly true among the traditionally underrepresented groups in post-secondary education. Of 100 middle schoolers, 93 say they aspire to college, but only 26 earn a college degree within six years of enrolling.

GS: Why are you advocating for a broader definition of readiness than passing a college placement exam?

DC: A broader and more inclusive definition of college and career ready will make it more feasible for more students to reach readiness. If college and career ready definitions vary across a range of postsecondary options, the specific skills necessary to demonstrate readiness vary somewhat by program, and more students can demonstrate readiness appropriate to the program they seek to enter. A broader definition also includes the knowledge, skills, and abilities that our research suggests are key to readiness. We also advocate for a compensatorsystem that allows for some variation in scores across measures above a foundational level of knowledge and skill.

GS: What kind of skills do you include in your definition of readiness?

DC: We describe skills in four categories—think, know, act, go. The more of these skills that a student has, the more post-secondary options are available:

  • Key cognitive strategies (think): problem solving strategies, conducting research, interpreting results, and constructing quality work products.
  • Key Content Knowledge (know): structure of knowledge in core subjects, the value of career related knowledge and willingness to expend effort to get it.
  • Key Learning skills and techniques (act): ownership of learning, and learning techniques such as time management, note taking, memorizing, strategic reading, and collaborative learning.
  • Key transition knowledge and skills (go): post secondary aspirations and norms, awareness of postsecondary costs and aid opportunities, knowledge of eligibility and admissions criteria, career awareness, role and identity, and self-advocacy.

GS: What skills are not getting the attention that they deserve?

DC: The Common Core State Standards contain four areas beyond ELA/language and math that, while they are going to be assessed in the consortia assessments in some fashion, they don’t really get the prominence they deserve. These four areas are perhaps as important as content knowledge in English and math. They are: speaking, listening, research, and technology proficiency.

GS: What is the state testing consortia doing about it?

DC: Each consortium has some sort of plan for listening, and Achieve is going to do speaking as well, but these assessments are not given anywhere near the prominence or attention of the ELA/Language and math assessments. The research assessment is in there in some of the PARCC performance tasks and also in SMARTER BALANCED, but not in a way that’s necessary to measure true research skills, which are awfully difficult to assess in anything other than a relatively complex research paper. Finally, technological proficiency is basically not tested at all, although there are scattered references to students using technology in the context of certain standards.

GS: It looks like the writing and math standards will be big challenge. Can we afford a broader focus?

It would be nice if tomorrow’s workers and citizens only needed a high score in English and math to be successful, but that’s not likely to be the case. I really think that if we as a nation emphasize these four areas as much as English and math, we would be further down the road to ensuring young people have the skills to succeed in the workplace and society at large. Speaking and listening, in particular, are critical and increasing in importance in the workplace. Lack of skills in these areas probably affects more workers negatively, particularly at the entry level but also in settings such as engineering labs, than do deficiencies in math and English skills. Lack of technology skills is probably close behind in terms of being a problem for entry-level workers. Research skills, particularly the ability to synthesize information rather than conduct research, becomes a consideration in a wide range of positions that are more knowledge-oriented, and research skills become a nice proxy for a whole range of complex problem solving skills as well.

GS: How would adding these areas help students with English and math skill issues?

The thing that’s exciting about these four is that they can be developed to some degree even in learners who have some basic skills deficiencies, so we don’t have to wait until someone reaches the highest levels in math and English to develop their speaking and listening skills, to acquaint them with technology, and to have them understand the principles of evidence needed to gather and evaluate source information. This approach would allow us to find more ways to have students succeed than to identify everyone who lacks a particular level of reading, writing, and math skill as a failure. It would also push all students toward a broader range of proficiencies and skills of the type necessary in all post-high school venues.

GS: Does the current college admission process represent readiness?

DC: The current model is really concerned with eligibility far more than readiness. What is needed is a readiness approach to college and careers that makes much clearer the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in the postsecondary program a student chooses.

GS: You’ve warned against the limitations of using cut scores to make life-altering decisions like college admissions. 

DC: Cut scores are fine at the national or state level, but less useful for individuals. Using multiple measures rather than cut scores is a much better way to gauge individual student readiness. We need more information when the concept is complex, as is college and career readiness. I’d like to see a compensatory system that allows for some variation in scores across a broader set of measures. A student could use stronger performance on one measure to compensate for a score that fell below the standard on another. The result would be a readiness profile tailored to a student’s aspirations and goals. I know this is more inconvenient for policy makers than is a single cut score, but we’re just not going to get there with English and math test results alone.

GS: We’ve heard you make interesting arguments about admissions error types

DC: There are two types of classification errors. One-type results in labeling some people as not qualified when they are; the other results in labeling some people as qualified when they are not. States have to decide which error they are willing to live with—admitting too many under qualified students or excluding students who are adequately prepared for their chosen course of study. While neither is desirable, we as a nation probably favor tilt in favor of giving people a chance, so we will probably favor systems that accept all those who are likely capable of succeeding, even if some are marginal. We will then need to support those students more in postsecondary education. A profile of their strengths and weaknesses will allow us to gauge their readiness much more precisely and to provide targeted supports to those who are marginal in the areas they need them. The alternative is to admit only those who we are absolutely sure will be able to succeed with little or no support, which is a level that relatively few students reach currently.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is founder and CEO of Getting Smart. He is also a partner in Learn Capital and a director of iNACOL, Digital Learning Institute, Imagination Foundation, Charter Board Partners, Strive for College, and Bloomboard.

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