Defining college and career readiness in revised science and technology/engineering standards

I am so pleased to have my friend and colleague Jake Foster join me to share some thoughts about college and career readiness AND science.  Jake works for the Massachusetts Department of Education and serves on one of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)  writing teams.  Below is an excerpt from an article he wrote for the Massachusetts Association of Science Teachers (MAST)Newsletter. I know you will find his thinking clear and his ideas provocative.

Many of you may now be familiar with the phrase “college and career readiness” in the context of standards. But what does it mean for science? This third article in a series on the revision of state science and technology/engineering standards will provide an overview of our developing thinking on this topic. Your input on this over the next months and in the next public draft of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) will help shape this definition.

A college and career readiness perspective aims to define what students need to know and be able to do to succeed in college and the workplace after they graduate from high school. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS), now our state’s ELA and mathematics standards, are very purposeful in attending to college and career readiness. Defining career and college readiness in ELA and mathematics focuses on students’ next steps. “College ready” indicates the knowledge and skills a student needs to take a credit-bearing introductory ELA and mathematics course in a two- or four-year college without the need for remediation. “Career ready” indicates preparation for entry-level positions in quality jobs and career pathways that often require further education and training. For purposes of the CCSS, the knowledge and skills a student needs to be college ready and career ready are the same.

The functional definition of ‘avoid remediation in college’ is not useful in science as most colleges do not have remedial courses in science nor do most entry-level college science courses have pre-requisites. Additionally, science as a broad discipline is composed of multiple subjects through which a student can pursue any number of possible pathways; science is not as linear a subject as ELA or mathematics.  This makes determinations of where to draw the line between high school and college for science a very difficult task. Keep in mind that college readiness focuses on the success of any college student taking an introductory science course, not science and engineering majors (those students will likely have additional expectations beyond general college readiness). A functional definition of “career ready” is even more difficult to define and has not yet been tackled directly.

With these challenges in mind, the 26 NGSS lead states gathered to have an initial discussion about a definition for college and career readiness in science. This meeting brought together state teams which included representatives from 2-year and 4-year post-secondary education institutions and businesses to review the draft NGSS in the context of college and career expectations. Teams met by content area to provide recommendations about whether the draft NGSS articulated a useful level of knowledge and skill for post-secondary opportunities. Most of the focus was on college readiness; it did not effectively address a career perspective.

This meeting represents an important but tentative first step to look at each discipline of science and begin to identify the line that differentiates high school from college in that particular discipline. Meeting in discipline-specific groups does not, however, allow for a definition across the full spectrum of science. Articulating a definition of college and career readiness that spans science as a whole is a key next step.

Meeting in discipline-specific groups also tends to focus on the conversation on the content of the discipline. A key question to any definition of college and career readiness is whether content is the fundamentally key component of readiness. Content is certainly important, as everyone will attest to, and researchers such as David Conley (2005) and organizations such as the College Board (2009) have noted. But what about scientific practices and process skills? ACT clearly shows through their surveys that practices are primary, with content as the context in which to apply/test those practices (http://www.act.org/research/curricsurvey.html). College Board (2009) was the first to intertwine practices with content in performance expectations in their Science Standards for College Success. There is also the work of Tai, Sadler, & Mintzes (2006) that shows opportunities for in-depth learning in high school courses, including engagement in learning experiences that are likely to draw on those practices, has a positive impact on college success. The other potential value of a focus on practices is that the practices provide more commonality across the disciplines than the particular content of each discipline. The NRC is about to release a report, Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century, that will further contribute to this perspective by clarifying the meaning of the terms “21st century skills” and “deeper learning”, examine evidence on the links between these skills and positive outcomes in work, education and other areas of life, and identify areas of overlap between these skills and the Common Core State Standards and the National Research Council’s (NRC) Framework for K-12 Science Education. Sources such as these are going to be important in determining what components – content, practices, skills, habits of mind, or other characteristics – are important in a definition of college and career readiness for science.

College Board. (2009). Science College Board Standards for College Success™. New York, NY: College Board.

Conley, D. T. (2005). College knowledge: What it really takes for students to succeed and what we can do to get them ready. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Tai, R. H., Sadler, P. M., and Mintzes J. J. (2006). Factors Influencing College Science Success. Journal of College Science Teaching, 36(1): 52-56.