North Carolina Implements a Comprehensive Approach to College and Career Readiness
North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI), with emphasis on school accountability and Career and Technical Education (CTE)
“Every child deserves an education that properly prepares him or her for the next big steps after graduation—college, career, and adulthood,” according to the state’s DPI website.
Implement a comprehensive suite of ACT solutions to diagnose, monitor, and measure college and career readiness:
- ACT Explore® in Grade 8
- ACT Plan® in Grade 10
- the ACT® college readiness assessment in Grade 11
- ACT WorkKeys® assessments leading to an ACT-registered Career Readiness Certificate (CRC) for Career & Technical Education students in Grade 12
“Our hope is that using the ACT suite beginning in Grade 8 will help students, parents, and educators identify strengths and weaknesses throughout their school years. We want to be sure we aren’t just graduating students— which is an admirable goal—we want to be sure that when they leave us, they are college and career ready.”Tammy Howard
North Carolina Department of Public Instruction
Educational achievement has been a priority for the state for many years. Tammy Howard, PhD, is director of Accountability Services for North Carolina DPI. Dr. Howard says the intent of accountability is to hold districts and schools accountable for the performance of their students and to provide a way to identify schools and districts most in need of intervention and assistance. For a 15-year period beginning with the 1997–1998 school year, accountability measures were implemented under a statewide program referred to as “The ABCs of Public Education.” The acronym stood for Accountability, teaching the Basics, and local Control. Schools were assigned a status based on test scores, and later, measures of improvement or progress in raising those scores were added.
Howard says North Carolina DPI views district and school excellence through a lens referred to as a performance composite. The composite includes all test scores in a particular school divided into the total number of proficient scores in that school. Scores include end-of-course and end-of-year tests.
Beginning with the 2012–2013 school year, accountability measures include end-ofcourse and end-of-year tests, the ACT test, graduation rates, math course rigor (successful completion of Algebra II or an equivalent course), and ACT WorkKeys assessments for senior CTE students. Starting in 2013–2014 these indicators will be used to assign schools an A, B, C, D, or F letter grade based on aggregate performance.
North Carolina uses ACT Explore and ACT Plan as diagnostic tools in Grades 8 and 10, but the scores are not included in accountability measures for the state. Each of these tests is aligned to Common Core standards and measures academic progress in the same four subject matter areas as the ACT test taken in Grade 11. They are designed to benchmark progress toward achieving college and career readiness providing an early view of preparedness.
Under the older rating system, one school might be labeled a “School of Distinction” while another was called a “School of Excellence.” Howard says, “Unless you were very familiar with the terms, it would be difficult to distinguish which of those two schools was performing better. The new system, with familiar report card-style grades, will be simpler for most individuals. However there will continue to be a need for all of the data to be reviewed for the complete picture of a school.”
The Communications Challenge
Howard says, “When our State Board of Education decided to begin administering the ACT test to all juniors, it really was rather aspirational from an accountability point of view. When you move from having 20,000 students take a college entrance exam to having 100,000 scores each year, it can create a communications challenge. Rather than expecting 2% or 3% increases each year, we’re now looking for one- or two-tenths of a point progress from year to year.”
“We think this is a more holistic approach to measuring college and career readiness,” says Howard. “Our hope is that using the ACT suite beginning in Grade 8 will help students, parents, and educators identify strengths and weaknesses throughout their school years. We want to be sure we aren’t just graduating students—which is an admirable goal—we want to be sure that when they leave us, they are college and career ready.”
Career & Technical Education
Jo Anne Honeycutt directs North Carolina’s Career & Technical Education (CTE) division within the state’s Department of Public Instruction. Currently 16 career cluster areas and about 180 state-approved CTE courses are offered to high school students.
The division’s stated mission is to “empower all students to be successful citizens, workers, and leaders in a global economy.” Honeycutt sees CTE initiatives as “a way to help students prepare to be career, college, and community ready, by providing relevant, contextual, and technical experiences designed to help students decide what they might want to pursue after high school.” The idea is to provide “work-based learning” experiences, starting in middle school, so students really begin to see what the workplace is like.
Exposure to the world of work begins as early as Grades 7 and 8. In 2013, nearly 35,000 North Carolina Grade 8 students participated in “Students at Work,” an initiative with this tagline: Relevance in the classroom; preparedness in the workplace. A partnership with the North Carolina Business Committee for Education, this program offers job shadowing opportunities to students in Grade 8 across the state.
As students move through the final four or five years of school toward graduation, they may tour local work sites, listen to classroom presentations by employers, enroll in structured internships, or participate in registered apprenticeships. Some of these opportunities qualify for dual credit, meaning the students earn transferrable college credit while still in high school at no cost to them or their families.
“Generally, we like to see students making choices as they enter high school,” says Honeycutt. She is quick to point out, “Selection of a CTE pathway does not mean that a student will not take the academic core subjects that would allow him or her to have many choices after high school, including enrolling as a full-time student in a college or university.” Under the recently adopted “Future Ready” core requirements in North Carolina, all students—including those who choose a CTE path—are required to take math and English coursework that makes them competitive for postsecondary placement. “For those who do choose a CTE path, they would also leave with some industry-standard credentials and technical studies, so we think it’s a good way to ensure students have a broad array of choices after they graduate.”
More than 500,000 North Carolina high school students are served by CTE programs each year. Between 35,000 and 40,000 of these students are known as “CTE Concentrators,” meaning they have chosen to pursue 4 units of credit in a CTE cluster area, and one of those courses must be an advanced course. The challenge is to reach these students early—in Grades 7, 8, and 9—and ensure they understand the course selection process and can complete all requirements before graduation. Early planning also increases the opportunity for students to take advantage of dual enrollment programs in partnership with the state’s community college system. In addition, it’s essential that each student is prepared with the essential foundational skills to succeed in the workplace.
For those who do choose a CTE path, they would also leave with some industry-standard credentials and technical studies, so we think it’s a good way to ensure students have a broad array of choices after they graduate.Jo Anne Honeycutt
North Carolina Career & Technical Education Division
Finding A Solution
DPI leadership was already investing in ACT solutions for Grades 8 and 10 by using ACT Explore and ACT Plan as diagnostic assessments, and administering the ACT to all high school juniors. They chose to add a requirement that all seniors enrolled in CTE programs take the three ACT WorkKeys assessments required for an ACT-registered Career Readiness Certificate. The requirements for the state CRC are identical to the ACT National Career Readiness Certificate (NCRC) recognized by employers nationwide and across many industry sectors. North Carolina CRCs issued under the state’s DPI contract with ACT are registered in the ACT database and therefore verifiable online by prospective employers. In addition, students graduating with a CRC have an additional credential to document the foundational workplace skills employers value in reading, math, and locating information.
Honeycutt’s office opted to offer ACT WorkKeys testing online rather than with paper and pencil. In February 2012, the first year of implementation, about half of the 35,000 ACT WorkKeys examinees took the assessments on a computer. One year later, 86% were tested online. This was the largest computer-based testing deployment in high schools ACT has ever conducted. Honeycutt explains that CTE students currently use a web-based product for formative and summative assessments as part of the CTE curriculum, so students are familiar with online testing. Getting immediate results on each assessment was also an attractive benefit.
- Year One (2011–2012): Of the 35,325 seniors tested, 29,931 (85%) earned an ACT-registered CRC. Of the Certificates awarded, 49% were Silver-level and 13% were Gold.
- Year Two (2012–2013): Of the 35,135 seniors tested, 30,513 (87%) earned an ACT-registered CRC. Of the Certificates awarded, 50% were Silver-level and 16% were Gold.
“The percentage of students earning each level mirrors the national average for examinees of all ages,” says Honeycutt. “We are particularly proud of the progress from our first to our second year: the number of Certificates earned increased even though we tested slightly fewer students, and we’re seeing a decrease in Bronze-level and an increase in Gold-level Certificates. Our goal is to have every CTE student earn a Silverlevel or above ACT-registered CRC, as that represents the broadest range of possible choices for post-high school success. In fact, Bronze-level Certificates aren’t even counted for school accountability purposes, so higher-level Certificates are very important to us and to the long-term marketability of our students.”
As required by Perkins legislation, CTE Concentrators are followed after high school graduation. “We survey them six months after graduation to see if they are employed, in military service, or in postsecondary education or advanced training. For the most recent graduating class, 94% were involved in one or more of these activities,” says Honeycutt.
ACT Work Ready Communities (WRC) Initiative
The ACT Work Ready Communities [WRC] initiative was created to empower states, regions, and counties with data, process, and tools to help drive economic growth. An early adopter of this initiative, North Carolina stepped up as a participating state in June 2013.
Each month, ACT posts National Career Readiness Certificate data, at the county level, on the WRC website along with the number of employers who recognize the NCRC. Since January 2006, nearly 180,000 individuals in North Carolina have earned ACT-registered Career Readiness Certificates, and nearly 700 detailed job profiles have been completed to analyze the key tasks and skill levels for particular jobs. The community college system in North Carolina has administered ACT WorkKeys assessments for many years.
The North Carolina Work Ready Communities team consists of a representative from the Governor’s Office, as well as state, regional, and local agencies representing education, workforce, commerce, and chambers of commerce. Honeycutt leads the WRC team for her state and she has reached out to regional and local leaders to provide input to the state effort. She anticipates that as employers across the state sign letters of commitment to recognize the Certificate in their hiring and promotion processes, students and job seekers of any age will see increased value in performing well on their WorkKeys assessments to earn higher-level Certificates.
A key benefit of WRC adoption—documented proof of local workforce quality—will be a tremendous economic development asset for communities.