California must test students on the right skills for college and career

Californians have high expectations: We want our schools to help young people become socially responsible, creative and critical thinkers and flexible lifelong learners.

That’s what we say. But that’s not how we have been grading schools.

For more than a decade, our accountability system has focused exclusively on standardized tests that measure relatively low-level skills. While tests can be useful, even more important is how well students are prepared for college, careers and life after high school.

As a state that defines innovation, we should not rely on an outmoded accountability system that doesn’t reflect our goals for young people. The governor and Legislature have overhauled school funding, shifting control of resources to local communities and requiring that they measure progress toward college and career readiness. What gets measured in these new Local Control and Accountability Plans will matter greatly for the opportunities our children will have available to them in the coming years.

Among the things we should care about are the results of the unprecedented investments that California has made in Linked Learning approaches, which integrate academic and technical courses in high school with real-world workplace learning in high-growth industries. Linked Learning allows students to satisfy the requirements for college while also becoming career ready. The objective is that every student will graduate ready for a wide range of postsecondary and career options.

In a world where knowledge is rapidly expanding and technologies are constantly changing, “college readiness” and “career readiness” are no longer entirely different things meant for entirely different students. More and more of the competencies that high school graduates will need in the workplace are also what colleges expect: the ability to find and evaluate information, weigh and balance evidence, communicate effectively, collaborate to solve problems and learn independently.

Virtually every well-paying career requires some type of education beyond high school, while virtually every college student intends to enter the workforce. That’s why we need to add indicators of career readiness to measures of college readiness, such as “A-G” coursework and success in Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or dual enrollment college courses.

First, as a growing number of other states do, we should count how many students complete a career pathway linking high-quality career courses and internships to academics.

Second, we should count the share of students who complete work-based learning experiences that meet quality standards. All students can benefit from internships, service-learning projects and school-based enterprises where they apply learning to real-world problems.

Finally, students can show what they’ve learned in applied assessments. Imagine students demonstrating their Web design abilities by building a website, or their accounting knowledge by creating a spreadsheet. Many schools measure college and career readiness by having students complete a portfolio that provides evidence of knowledge and skills.

Wouldn’t it be nice if the measures used for accountability also have value to students themselves? Their motivation to acquire greater skills can be stimulated by helping them show employers and colleges what they can do. We could develop new ways to communicate with postsecondary institutions that go beyond the traditional GPA and test-score reports by using student profiles and portfolios that showcase students’ products, along with industry credentials and badges that can be included on a student’s diploma.

As our state is refocusing its efforts, determining how to assess college and career readiness should be a high priority. We have an opportunity to develop new accountability systems that support the kinds of learning that matter in the real world and that provide valuable feedback to our schools and our communities, while motivating our students to take pride in showing what they know and can do.

Linda Darling-Hammond is a professor of education at Stanford University and chairwoman of the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing. Hilary McLean is deputy director of the Linked Learning Alliance.