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Working together: Building a foundation for college and career readiness in Arkansas

Researchers looking into microscope and discussing

By Helen Duffy, Candace Hester, Stephen Plank, and Laura Stein | Jan. 9, 2019

This post is a team collaboration by four REL Southwest coauthors who are part of our Southwest College and Career Readiness (SWCCR) Research Partnership with the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE). The partnership’s work supports ADE’s commitment that all Arkansas students graduate prepared to engage in college, career preparation, military service, or competitive employment.

Leadership from the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE) and the project team from the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Southwest are joining forces and pooling their expertise and resources to work together as the Southwest College and Career Readiness (SWCCR) Research Partnership. Each partner brings to the job specialized “tools”—skills and knowledge—a toolbox for building a solid foundation for the work.

Educators in Arkansas are bringing strong statewide and cross-agency data resources and a clear vision to the table. As stated in ADE’s strategic plan, A Vision for Excellence in Education, as well as the Arkansas State Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) Plan, ADE is committed to having all students engaged in college, career preparation, military service, or competitive employment one year after high school graduation.

In addition, Arkansas has developed a rich, student-level longitudinal data system, able to link with additional data maintained by the Arkansas Departments of Higher Education, Career Education, and Workforce Services. This work on a statewide longitudinal data system has been supported by several grants from the U.S. Department of Education as well as additional resources and sustained effort by ADE staff.

During 2018 and continuing into 2019, this partnership has begun its work toward the goal of supporting ADE in developing and refining indicators of college and career readiness for Arkansas students. Through purposeful planning, REL Southwest and ADE codeveloped a series of technical support sessions and an applied research project intended to complement each other and scaffold the capacities needed to answer the questions, “What are our current strategies—and levels of success—for developing and measuring college and career readiness (CCR)?” and “What processes, interventions, or program improvements might we implement in the coming years to improve students’ CCR and postsecondary success?”

The series of three technical support sessions began by sharing with ADE staff a research-based framework for college and career readiness, the Employability Skills Framework (ESF), developed by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Adult and Technical Education. The series continued by mapping current and planned CCR indicators identified in the Arkansas ESSA plan against the ESF in a matrix to identify areas of alignment and gaps. Gaps were discussed as domains of college and career readiness shown by research to be predictive of student success, and therefore areas ADE and Arkansas districts might want to consider measuring and monitoring in the future. The series is scheduled to conclude with a discussion of how ADE can use its growing familiarity with the ESF and the matrix to assess ADE’s alignment as a way to provide evidence-based support to local districts as they monitor and support students’ development and engage in cycles of continuous improvement.

The applied research project that the SWCCR partners have developed uses secondary and postsecondary (education and employment) data for two recent cohorts of Arkansas students to address three interrelated needs:

  • An examination of the proportion and characteristics of Arkansas high school students who meet or exceed benchmarks for college and career readiness and postsecondary success
  • An inquiry into the ability of current indicators of CCR and postsecondary success in the Arkansas ESSA plan to serve as credible predictive tools of these desired outcomes among Arkansas students
  • A deeper dive into any differences in the predictive quality of the indicators for different student subpopulations

The technical support activities and applied research activities purposely complement and inform each other. While the technical support sessions explore whether there are gaps in alignment between ADE’s current CCR indicators and related initiatives that support readiness, and a nationally recognized, research-based CCR framework, the applied research project’s main goal is to identify the most useful combination of current or potential CCR indicators for predicting (a) readiness for college and career and (b) success in college or the workplace. Using multiple tools in our toolbox, REL Southwest is addressing ADE’s need for actionable, evidence-based, and locally relevant support for improving the CCR and postsecondary outcomes of its students.