Career Readiness Steps Into the Spotlight

I recently had the privilege of visiting the Woodville Tomkins Technical and Career High School in Savannah, Georgia, where students in the Culinary Arts program prepared a delicious surf and turf with lobster pilaf served in the shell. Under the guidance of award-winning Chef Dyson-Bosier, high school students planned, prepped, cooked, and served 20 guests who were all grantees of the Hewlett Foundation.

Student ambassadors then proudly showed off their “pathway” classrooms, including a roomful of flight simulators in the Aviation Flight Operations class and a full body shop in the Automotive Technology wing. The school includes its own onsite pre-k where students in the early childhood program get actual real-world student teaching experience as they study early childhood development.

Woodville Tomkins graduates 100 percent of its students (compared to the district graduation rate of 87 percent, and the Georgia statewide average of 81 percent). The school offers dual enrollment courses through partnerships with four Georgia colleges. Students typically complete their core academic course work in grades 9 and 10, and complete at least three courses in their selected career pathway, often earning technical certifications. Many graduate with enough post-secondary credits to enter the college of their choice as sophomores.

What is the secret that makes Woodville Tomkins so successful in graduating students ready for college and career?

In a word: engagement. Students at Woodville Tomkins are visibly engaged in and proud of their studies. The student chefs presented our meal with all the pride of Top Chef. Graduating senior Fautzin Desmonda showed us the sanding and body work that he and his classmates had done on his own car. He will earn his Automotive Service Excellence certification and will apply those skills in the Army, where he will receive further training in a field he loves. Graduating senior Deonte Green proudly shared his latest college acceptance, bringing the total to 10 institutions he would soon have to choose from.

Research shows that students enrolled in career and technical education (CTE) programs of study (POS) that include dual enrollment in high school are more likely to graduate, more likely to enroll in two- or four-year colleges, and more likely to complete their post-secondary program of study. Students who are motivated by the relevance of what they’re studying apply themselves, work harder, and take greater satisfaction in school.

Woodville Tomkins Principal Alfred McGuire has created a remarkable culture of engagement where students think about their course pathways and future careers in terms of the impact each student can make on society. “I believe career pathways allow our students to utilize their talents and skills to make a positive impact for themselves and their community. By gaining these valuable skills they grow to become dynamic members of our society and create lasting outcomes that will benefit everyone.”

As I see it, career is finally stepping out of the shadows in our national commitment to college and career readiness. Career has always been the end goal, and post-secondary education—whether four-year or two-year college or industry certification—has always been the next step toward that important outcome. Bringing career into high school, making course work more relevant and engaging, is a powerful strategy for tapping student motivation and expanding opportunities.

At New Meridian, we hope to advance this effort to make high school more relevant and engaging to motivate students to pursue their dreams. We are working with Dr. David Conley, several career and technical academies, and community colleges to pilot a new measure of career readiness. By combining foundational academic skills, pathway-specific quantitative and literacy skills, and non-academic skills required for success in knowledge-based work environments, we are committing ourselves to help high schools like Woodville Tomkins and career-oriented community colleges around the country engage students in relevant, inspiring programs of study that will lead them to new opportunities in meaningful, high-paying 21st century careers.


Examining how states and systems are rethinking education, assessments and accountability to improve student outcomes

Decoding the Data

How One District Used Analytics to Predict and Guide Student Success

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of The Prime’s Decoding the Data series, which examines organizations that package and present assessment data in new and creative ways. See the entire series on New Meridian’s website.

Several years ago, public education officials in Washington, D.C., became convinced that a new strategy was needed to increase the rate of on-time, four-year graduation. A host of engaged education agencies, school leaders, and civic partners were bought in, and with that buy-in came a litany of theories about what steps could be taken to improve outcomes, but much of it was formed through anecdotal evidence, observation, and personal and professional experiences.

What was missing was a concrete diagnosis grounded in hard data.

Officials in the 50,000-student district knew that many students were facing unique challenges. And at the time, it was managing a slew of programs designed to address those needs through special coursework augmenting standard curriculum, and in some cases, revamped curriculum designed to meet the unique needs of children experiencing divorce, extreme poverty, single-family homes, homelessness, high mobility rates, and ESL, among many dozens of other difficult circumstances.

Yet despite roughly 60 tailored interventions, 40% of 9th graders in the District weren’t expected to graduate on time. Worse, nobody could say with absolute certainty when students were falling off-track, why they were falling behind, and most importantly, what programs and schools had the highest likelihood of getting struggling students back on the path toward on-time graduation.

To answer those questions, the district turned to Tembo, a firm specializing in the contextualization of complex education data.

Tembo is part of a new breed of organizations that translate vast amounts of complex data into information that can be easily understood by parents, teachers, educators and policy makers. Their efforts are providing actionable information that can be used to guide improvements throughout the education system.

Mapping Inputs and Outcomes

“The way in which data is presented to parents is most important,” says David Stewart, Tembo’s founder and CEO. “But to make that data truly meaningful and actionable, it has to be on top of a really robust analytic engine.”

Stewart’s team began an intensive, months-long data collection effort that absorbed hundreds of disparate inputs including race, ethnicity, gender, lunch status, ESL, and inclusion in the foster system. Longitudinal student information such as special education status, test scores, and attendance records, among dozens of others were also collected. Employing sophisticated analytic methods, Stewart’s team was able to map the relationship between all of the various inputs and graduation rates.

By the time the analysis was completed, officials in the District had gained a nuanced and granular understanding of the impact specific student challenges have on a desired outcome. The analysis allowed them to segment a student population consisting of tens of thousands of children, and then say, with a high degree of certainty, the degree to which student mobility or special education classification decreased the likelihood of on-time graduation. It provided a concrete relationship between any number of possible inputs – for example, whether a student had been suspended for disciplinary reasons – and graduation rates.

In effect, Tembo’s groundbreaking analysis produced a district-wide early warning system, providing D.C. education officials with a roadmap for how to more efficiently and effectively steer scarce resources to areas most likely to affect outcomes.

Answering Important Questions

Stewart’s work in analytics began in the early 2000s, while he was serving as Executive Director of Evaluation and Performance Reporting for the New York Public School system. It was there that he began building detailed Excel spreadsheets to draw correlations between achievement on test scores and desired outcomes. His analyses gave the department valuable insight into how even marginal improvements in test scores can impact broader student success. That predictive insight informed the way the department made decisions on where to focus resources.

It wasn’t long before word of Stewart’s work in New York began to spread, and other school districts began seeking him out to help improve their own data analytics operations.

“I helped educators answer important questions through the data,” Stewart said. “I helped them create interactive tools with Excel to help them better understand it. Eventually I realized that if I could make my Excel-based services available on the Web, we could have a much bigger impact.”

Tembo, which works in a number of states that use New Meridian testing content, began as an outgrowth of the work Stewart was already doing in school districts, largely to meet growing demand. But as the company grew, it became focused on improving the way data is communicated to different audiences, including schools, administrators, parents and policymakers.

In nearly 10 years, the company has helped education officials in some of the country’s largest school districts, including New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore.

Officials in the Washington, D.C. school district say the analytics system created by Tembo has helped better understand how to target scarce education resources. It has helped them determine which interventions provide the most “bang for the buck.” And it has given them a clear picture of which schools are improving the odds for students and which are decreasing the odds.

“The analytics allow us to look at a particular school and say, ‘based on the makeup of the kids in this school, the graduation rate should be X, but it was actually Y’,” Stewart said. “The ability to analyze data in this way obviously has huge implications for accountability systems.”

Next Month: How one company is helping to redefine the parent-teacher conference into something far more useful.


Rethinking the Purposes of Schooling (and Assessment)

Few thoughtful people would dispute the fact that the world is changing rapidly in many ways. Among the most important of those is an ongoing transformation of the economy from one that required workers of vastly different education and skill levels to perform quite different work tasks, to one in which all workers need higher levels of knowledge and ability and can add new skills throughout their careers.

What we have witnessed over the past 30 years and see continuing indefinitely into the future is the disappearance of lower skill jobs and the appearance of a proliferating number and type of higher skill jobs. Perhaps more importantly, paired with this expansion of skill expectations is the need for workers to continue to add new skills and to change roles during their work careers, including changing careers altogether. Predictions of the number of distinct careers today’s students will pursue continue to increase, but it’s not unusual to see studies citing the likelihood of today’s students taking on a half-dozen or more different types of employment in their work lifetime. This type of unprecedented expectation that people pursue not just a career but a career evolutionary track will require exceptional abilities to adapt and to master new skills and to be true lifetime learners.

These realities of the current and future economy call on schools to do something fundamentally different for students than has been done in the past. This is true both for instructional programs and for assessments as well. Historically, schools over the past century have been institutions that effectively sort students into different futures, largely on the basis of parental education and income level. In fact, the origin of the “scientific testing” movement of the 1920s that underlies much of today’s assessment design was derived from psychological models and theories that posited only a small proportion could ever truly perform at high levels, most would get by, and a sizable percentage would not be candidates for much beyond a rudimentary education. This worked fine as long as the economy offered opportunities proportional to this distribution and in fact did not need workers to meet, adapt, or add new skills much during their careers.

The emergence of the knowledge economy has disrupted this model. Schooling now needs to get all students to high levels of performance, and performance needs to extend far beyond mastering core English and math concepts and content. Testing can no longer simply be designed to sort students along a continuum. Even as testing moves from norm referenced-models to criterion-referenced and standards-based forms, much of the test development process still hinges on making sure that not too many students can “pass.” Instruction still is geared at slightly above an assumed norm, and “remediation” of skills deficits in practice consists largely of looking at test items missed with the goal of reteaching that same information, often in similar ways.

New models need to focus more on developing learners as learners, equipping them as self-directed, empowered individuals with clear goals and aspirations, who are aware of what they need to know and be able to do to succeed. Education then becomes the process of equipping students to be successful pursuing their goals and achieving their dreams, not solely of meeting an externally-determined standard or set of knowledge and skills.

Of course, schools need to focus on those students who struggle to develop the necessary high expectations or clear goals. This process of enabling all students to have high, clear goals and know how to pursue them should become the new key value-add of schooling, above and beyond content transmission, although skillful educators will always connect the two and intertwine them.

What kind of assessment system, or system of assessments, will accomplish this new goal and facilitate the types of instruction geared to creating individuals who are adaptive, self-reliant, and highly capable lifelong learners?

It will be a model that incorporates multiple measures, most of which are designed largely with the goal of providing information to the student first and foremost, and then to the teacher, school, district, state, and federal government. This will require data analytics systems and platforms that collect and integrate information across multiple sources that would include tests, demographic information, self-reports, observations, and behavioral data, among others, and that conceives of assessment as consisting of multiple possibilities, item types, experiences, and formats. Much is being done currently to develop options in all of these areas.

The new skill educators will need to acquire will be to learn how to use which options in which settings with which students in order to build more complete student profiles that inform actions and decisions on students’ parts and help educators adapt the instructional program to the actual and real-time needs of each student.

Nothing about this will be easy or without controversy. Perhaps schools will be able to pull off this transformation of purpose. Perhaps they will stumble along the way and new institutions will arise to serve the needs of different types of students in different ways. The power of personalization continues to increase in all aspects of commerce and human interaction. Education will be challenged to achieve the goal of personalization in ways that enable all students to be prepared for life in a rapidly changing, knowledge-based economy and society. Assessment will be an important element in any model or vision that pursues such a goal.

David T. Conley, Ph.D., is the President of EdImagine, Professor Emeritus at the University of Oregon, and a member of the New Meridian Corp. Board of Directors.

Inside New Meridian

New Meridian at the ATP Innovations in Testing Conference

New Meridian’s Chief Assessment Officer, Tracy Gardner, will be presenting at the ATP Innovations in Testing Conference. She will be joined by Leslie Keng from the Center for Assessment and Stephen Murphy of Measured Progress. Their session “Pioneering a New Approach to Test Design and Development,” will focus on how states assessments can be made significantly more flexible while maintaining high measurement standards and quality. The session is scheduled for Monday, March 18, 2019 from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m.