In Education Week’s Top Performer’s blog, Marc Tuker recently reflected on the gap between typical American practice and global best practice when it comes to college and career readiness. Below are excerpts from the post:
In top-performing education systems, qualifications systems are designed so that at the end of each stage of a student’s progression through the school system, and then from high school to college and career, there are examinations and performance assessments intended to determine whether the student has met the qualifications for moving on to the next stage. The standards for the qualifications are clear and the pathways are well-defined, although students can change pathways if they wish. Such systems make it clear what it means to be college and work ready. Everyone knows what it takes to get into various types of postsecondary institutions. Everyone knows what it takes to be admitted to the training that will lead to a wide variety of lower- and middle-skill careers and what it takes at the end of that training to start out in a particular career.
In many of the top-performing countries, the qualifications system is coupled to a board examination system. Board examination systems are structured to match the qualifications system, but they go further. They are built around a progression of courses through the grades, each of which is specified by a course syllabus provided by the state. Exams developed and administered by the state are meant to assess the degree to which the student has learned what he or she was supposed to learn in the course. The courses progress in a logical order. Students who master the courses in the sequence will reach each qualification in turn as they go through the sequence. The questions asked in the exams are released after the exam is administered, along with examples of the student work that earned top marks. This is possible because these exam systems are based not on multiple-choice questions, but on short essay questions that are centrally scored under the supervision of the examination board. Some of these systems include in the course grade the marks given to forms of student work that cannot be included in timed exams, such as a computer software program, an oil painting, a musical composition or performance or an engineering project. Grades given on these performances are moderated by the examination board to make sure that the grades are reasonably reliable. While this system sounds constraining, teachers typically have a lot of latitude in planning their lessons to meet the needs of their own students.
Students in such systems who do not intend to go to university right after high school usually work toward a career-oriented qualification. But career and technical education is usually set to much higher academic standards than is generally the case in the United States career and technical education programs. These systems are not narrowly defined credentialing pathways that end up in dead ends; students have the option of combining further academic and occupational qualifications right through university. They are for students who prefer applied learning and careers that combine intellectual with practical challenges. Demanding performance assessments are typically a very important part of these systems. It is never too late to pick up any credential. They are not age-based, so anyone who lacks a qualification they want can always go after it, at any stage of their life.
The combination of a qualifications system and board examination system is very powerful. What’s more, the question of how to make sure that students are ready for college and career does not arise in countries with qualifications systems.