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Partnering with Arkansas to identify indicators that predict postsecondary readiness and success

students throwing hats in air in graduation ceremony

by Michelle Boyd | November 8, 2021

Michelle Boyd is a researcher with the American Institutes for Research (AIR) and coordinates REL Southwest’s College and Career Readiness Research Partnership. In this blog post, she provides a look at the work of this partnership between REL Southwest and the Arkansas Department of Education.


The Arkansas Department of Education’s (ADE’s) vision is for all students, regardless of background, to graduate high school prepared for college, career, and community engagement. REL Southwest’s College and Career Readiness Research Partnership works with ADE to support this vision. The partnership has been working to identify the most useful indicators for predicting readiness for college and success in college. REL Southwest recently partnered with ADE to design a study that investigated the college and career readiness indicators in their Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) plan and identified which of these middle school and high school indicators are strong predictors of postsecondary readiness and success. The study also examined the percentages of students who achieved the outcomes for postsecondary readiness and success, overall and by student group.

In order to more equitably serve students across Arkansas, the partnership sought to understand:

  • How many Arkansas students attained postsecondary readiness (ACT score of 19 or higher) and success (college enrollment and persistence)
  • The accuracy of the middle school and high school indicators from Arkansas’s ESSA plan in predicting postsecondary readiness and success

The REL Southwest team reviewed longitudinal student data for two cohorts of grade 6 students (school years 2008/09 through 2017/18) to learn if Arkansas’s ESSA plan indicators accurately predicted postsecondary readiness and success, as well as the relative strength of these individual indicators. REL Southwest used machine learning, a cutting edge method that addresses complex relationships between factors, to help determine how accurately the indicators from middle school and high school predict attainment of the postsecondary readiness and success outcomes and control for student background characteristics.

Key study findings show that most Arkansas students in the study enrolled in college but less than half attained postsecondary readiness in high school. Arkansas ESSA indicators of college and career readiness accurately predicted postsecondary readiness and success outcomes for most students. In addition, some indicators were identified as strong predictors of success outcomes for Arkansas students (see illustration below). For full details of the findings and methods used for the study, please read and download the final study report.

infographic depicting middle and high school success predictors

Implications and next steps

The study’s findings can inform the use of middle and high school indicators of postsecondary readiness and success to identify students’ strengths as well as areas where they may need additional supports or resources. Indicators such as the ones included in this study (that align with Arkansas’s ESSA plan) can help education agencies design universal and individual strategies to keep students on track for postsecondary readiness and success. Study results can guide timely targeted student-, classroom-, and school-level interventions, and also guide state and local policymakers in directing resources toward students and schools in greatest need of support.

Study findings also revealed there may be inequities in how these indicators play out across different student groups. After the findings were presented to ADE, they asked REL Southwest to conduct a supplemental in-depth analysis to better understand differences by demographic background characteristics in the accuracy and strength of the indicators for predicting outcomes for different student groups. Work is underway for this new REL Southwest study. A report of these findings will be available in summer 2022.

In addition, ADE is particularly interested in exploring two major indicators that were identified through the study—exclusionary discipline and chronic absence. REL Southwest is partnering with ADE to deliver training to explore the existing research and resources on inequities in how the disciplinary actions are applied to students across different student demographics, and discuss how ADE can support districts implementing evidence-based strategies related to reducing chronic absenteeism and discipline incidences. For example, this could involve developing a data system (for example, a dashboard) that incorporates indicators of postsecondary readiness and success and other key factors. Such a system could help educators identify students’ strengths and challenges, inform the provision of appropriate supports, and monitor their progress in service of improving student outcomes and advancing educational equity.

REL Southwest and ADE are also conducting a free webinar this fall to elevate the discipline-related findings from the study and the role that disciplinary actions can play in students’ success. ADE leaders intend to share the study findings, highlighted indicators, and information from the upcoming training sessions. Our goal is to promote understanding of the evidence on strategies intended to reduce chronic absenteeism and alternative discipline practices, and help state leaders explore early warning systems and related strategies for flagging students in need of interventions and progress after interventions.


For more information on college and career readiness, see the following resources from around the REL network:

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Author Information

Michelle Boyd photo

Michelle Boyd

Researcher | American Institutes for Research

mboyd@air.org