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Research and programs for college and career readiness in middle school — March 2018


Could you provide information, including programs, on college and career readiness in middle school?


Following an established REL West research protocol, we conducted a search for research reports and resources on college and career readiness in middle school. The sources included ERIC, Google Scholar, and PsychInfo. (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response. We offer them only for your reference. Also, we searched for references through the most commonly used sources of research, but the list is not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist.

Research References

ACT. (2008). The forgotten middle: Ensuring that all students are on target for college and career readiness before high school. Iowa City, IA: Author. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “The percentage of eighth graders on target to be ready for college-level work by the time they graduate from high school is so small that it raises questions not just about the prospect that these students can eventually be ready for college, but also about whether they are even ready for high school. A new longitudinal study by ACT reveals that when students’ skills are improved during middle school, the results by the end of high school can be astounding. This issue brief summarizes the findings and presents recommendations for policymakers.”

ACT. (2015). Building momentum: The condition of progress toward college readiness. A profile of 2013 ACT Explore and ACT Plan-tested students. Iowa City, IA: Author. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Since 1959, ACT has collected and reported data on students’ academic readiness for college. As a trusted, nonprofit leader in research on college and career readiness, ACT is committed to continuing efforts to provide data and information to help solve the daunting problems faced by our nation. This report is part of a series of reports that looks at the progress toward college readiness made by middle school students and students at the midpoint of high school who took ACT Explore and ACT Plan. The data in these reports can help inform and guide efforts to improve college and career readiness for the next generation of students. In determining a student’s progress toward college readiness, these reports help answer the following questions: (1) What percentage of students meet the ACT Explore and ACT Plan College Readiness Benchmarks in each subject area? (2) How many students are exposed to ACT Explore and ACT Plan? (3) How have ACT Explore and ACT Plan scores changed over a five-year period? and (4) What policies and practices can states and schools implement to improve the college readiness of students? This report contains three parts: (1) The cross-sectional portion of the report presents the results of eighth-grade students who took ACT Explore and tenth-grade students who took ACT Plan during the 2012–13 school year; (2) The longitudinal section of the report presents the results of a cohort of students who graduated from high school in 2013 and took ACT Explore during eighth grade in 2008–09, ACT Plan during tenth grade in 2010–11, and the ACT test during eleventh or twelfth grade in 2011–12 or 2012–13; and (3) Policy and Practice Recommendations for Increasing Readiness recommends policies and practices states and schools can adopt to improve students’ college readiness.”

Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE). (2017). Career exploration in middle school: Setting students on the path to success. Alexandria, VA: Author. Retrieved from

From the executive summary: “Research has identified middle school as a time when students can benefit the most from career exploration, a process of building self-awareness, learning about potential careers, and developing a plan for reaching future goals. Career exploration engages middle school students at a time when they are at a higher risk for disengaging from learning due to challenges in forming identity, coping with puberty and navigating new environments. It also capitalizes on their developing abilities to think abstractly, and their preferences for teamwork and active learning through relevant real-life scenarios. These preferences make middle school a natural time for students to learn about careers and develop skills such as problem solving, critical thinking and teamwork through career exploration activities. While career exploration has proven benefits for middle-grades students, programs and activities can be difficult to implement due to a lack of funding, a focus on core academic courses and overburdened school counselors. Educators, adminis­trators and counselors have developed a variety of flexible practices to overcome these barriers. A key way career exploration is provided to middle school students is through exploratory and introductory CTE cours­es. These courses help students identify careers of interest and develop employability skills that will serve them in fur­ther education and the workplace. They can be delivered in various ways, from yearlong classes that address all 16 Career Clusters® to semester-length courses in one broad career area, with the common goal to provide opportunities for students to learn about career and education pathways and to build employability skills.”

Balfanz, R. (2009). Putting middle grade students on the graduation path. A policy and practice brief. Westerville, OH: National Middle School Association. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “The middle grades, broadly defined as fifth through eighth grade, need to be seen as the launching pad for a secondary and post-secondary education system that enables all students to obtain the schooling and/or career training they will need to fully experience the opportunities of 21st century America. This brief, drawing on our research and field work, illuminates key policy and practice implications of the middle grades playing a stronger role in achieving our national goal of graduating all students from high school prepared for college or career and civic life. The brief is based on more than a decade of research and development work at the Center for the Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University. It also draws on direct field experience in more than 30 middle schools implementing comprehensive reform and a longstanding collaboration with the Philadelphia Education Fund.”

Cabrera, A. F., Deil-Amen, R., Prabhu, R., Terenzini, P. T., Chul, L., & Franklin Jr., R. E. (2006). Increasing the college preparedness of at-risk students. Journal of Latinos and Education, 5(2), 79–97. Retrieved from

From the abstract:GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) emerged in the late 1990s as a comprehensive outreach program seeking to enhance awareness of and readiness for college among low-income middle school students. After controlling for students’ preprogram test scores and school characteristics, findings indicate that students participating in GEAR UP and in a comparison group gained in their reading and mathematics test scores. Analyses, however, found no statistically significant 2-year effects of program participation on students’ reading scores, although a slight, nonsignificant trend across the study period suggested some closing of the statistically significant gap between the 2 groups in the baseline year.”

Dougherty, C. (2014). Catching up to college and career readiness: The challenge is greater for at-risk students (Issue brief). Iowa City, IA: ACT. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Educators and policymakers have set a goal that all students graduate from high school ready for college and careers. A substantial body of research supports the idea that the path to college and career readiness begins well before middle and high school. In an earlier policy report, ACT examined the percentage of academically far off track students in grade 8 from multiple states who were able to reach ACT College Readiness Benchmarks on the ACT in grade 12, as an indicator of the challenges school systems face in closing academic preparation gaps at the high school level. This report extends earlier research by analyzing student catch-up rates in grades 4–8 (middle grades) and 8–11 or 8–12 (high school) by student demographic subgroup. Two states, Arkansas and Kentucky, supplied the data needed to link student enrollment and test records across those grade spans and to disaggregate students into demographic groups. The results of this study extend the findings of previous research to show the additional difficulty of catching up Far Off Track students from at-risk demographic groups.”

Education Commission of the States. (2009). Middle grades: 15 actions your state can take to maximize young adolescents’ readiness for grade 9—and college and careers. Denver, CO: Author. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “The middle grades are in crisis. By state and national measures, student achievement gains realized in the elementary grades all too often diminish by grade 8. In most states, the considerable policy focus on high schools in recent years has not trickled down to a focus on the middle grades—yet preparation for ‘college- and work-ready standards’ must begin ‘before’ high school, especially for at-risk students. Although research on best practices in the middle grades is less plentiful than research on other grade levels (i.e., early learning, high school), there is growing awareness of the need for states to shift attention to what happens in the middle grades if meaningful high school reform is to be realized. This issue of ‘The Progress of Education Reform’ highlights key findings from recent research and publications on improving student success in the middle grades—and identifies actions states can take to translate these findings into sound policy.”

Gaertner, M. N., & McClarty, K. L. (2015). Performance, perseverance, and the full picture of college readiness. Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice, 34(2), 20–33. Abstract retrieved from

From the abstract: “Although college readiness is a centerpiece of major educational initiatives such as the Common Core State Standards, few systems have been implemented to track children’s progress toward this goal. Instead, college-readiness information is typically conveyed late in a student’s high-school career, and tends to focus solely on academic accomplishments—grades and admissions test scores. Late-stage feedback can be problematic for students who need to correct course, so the purpose of this research is to develop a system for communicating more comprehensive college-readiness diagnoses earlier in a child’s K–12 career. This article introduces college-readiness indicators for middle-school students, drawing on the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 (NELS), a nationally representative longitudinal survey of educational inputs, contexts, and outcomes. A diversity of middle-school variables was synthesized into six factors: achievement, behavior, motivation, social engagement, family circumstances, and school characteristics. Middle-school factors explain 69% of the variance in college readiness, and results suggest a variety of factors beyond academic achievement—most notably motivation and behavior—contribute substantially to preparedness for postsecondary study. The article concludes with limitations and future directions, including the development of college-readiness categories to support straightforward communication of middle-school indicators to parents, teachers, and students.”

Glessner, K., Rockinson-Szapkiw, A. J., & Lopez, M. L. (2017). ‘Yes, I can’: Testing an intervention to increase middle school students’ college and career self-efficacy. Career Development Quarterly, 65(4), 315–325. Abstract retrieved from

From the abstract: “Middle school is the appropriate time for students to begin exploring careers and improving self-efficacy; however, empirically supported career and college readiness interventions for U.S. middle school students are limited. Examining the effect of an intervention that combined a virtual experience and a local college visit on middle school students (99 girls, 74 boys), the authors found that participating students had higher levels of college and career self-efficacy than did nonparticipating students. The study shows that a workshop of the online Florida CHOICES program coupled with a campus visit increased middle school student career and college self-efficacy. Future research should include longitudinal studies and use of diverse populations to improve generalizability of study results.”

Lefly, D. L., Lovell, C. D., & O’Brien, J. M. (2011). Shining a light on college remediation in Colorado: The predictive utility of the ACT for Colorado and the Colorado Student Assessment Program. Denver, CO: Colorado Department of Education. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “The purpose of this study was to examine postsecondary readiness for 17,499 Colorado students by exploring the congruence between middle school and high school state assessment results from 2007, ACT results from 2008 and the need for remediation for Colorado students who graduated from high school in the spring of 2009 and entered a Colorado postsecondary institution in fall 2009. By examining the assessment results for these students from as early as the sixth grade, it was clear that if students were not proficient on the state assessment in sixth grade, they were likely to require remediation in their first year of college. If middle school teachers would analyze the state assessment data for this purpose they would be better able to identify which students are very likely be postsecondary ready and which students are not. Also teachers could use the assessment results to target the academic skills of struggling students early in middle school to focus on preparing them to be postsecondary ready. The eighth grade results could be used to gauge how successful the middle and K–8 schools have been in moving students toward Postsecondary and Workforce Readiness (PWR). High schools could use the data from the middle school years to target incoming ninth graders who are not yet proficient on the state assessment. More precise use of state assessment data could focus educators on the ultimate goal of developing postsecondary- and workforce-ready students in all grades, not just those for which graduation is rapidly approaching.”

Lindsay, J., Davis, E., Stephan, J., & Proger, A. (2017). Impacts of Ramp-Up to Readiness™ after one year of implementation (REL 2017-241). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Midwest. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “To better enable middle and high schools to increase college participation and success rates among their students, the University of Minnesota’s College Readiness Consortium developed Ramp-Up to Readiness™ (Ramp-Up), a schoolwide advisory program to increase students’ likelihood of college enrollment and completion by enhancing five dimensions of college readiness (academic, admission, career, financial, and personal-social) among middle school and high school students. As of 2016, the program has been rolled out in 150 middle and high schools throughout Minnesota, but little information is available on the program’s effectiveness. This report describes a study of the impacts of the Ramp-Up program after one year of implementation and provides information on how Ramp-Up differs from college-related supports in other schools and the degree to which Ramp-Up has been implemented with fidelity. The study’s main findings are: (1) After a single year of implementation, there were no statistically significant differences on self-reported goal striving or commitment to college scores or on likelihood of completing the FAFSA and submitting at least one college application between students in Ramp-Up schools and students in comparison schools; (2) Ramp-Up schools and comparison schools offered the same types of supplemental college-readiness supports; (3) Staff in Ramp-Up schools engaged in more college-readiness activity than did staff in comparison schools. Students in Ramp-Up schools perceived a greater emphasis among staff on two of the five dimensions of college readiness (admissions readiness and financial readiness) than did students in comparison schools; and (4) When averaged across program components, 96% of Ramp-Up schools’ implementation scores fell within the range that the program developer classified in advance as adequate. However, only 3 of the 25 (12%) Ramp-Up schools had adequate scores for all five of Ramp-Up’s key components (structural supports, professional development, curriculum delivery, curriculum content, and postsecondary planning tools), suggesting that Ramp-Up schools need to improve implementation if they hope to produce the program’s intended impacts.”

REL West note: The participants in this study were from high schools, but the program examined in this study (i.e., the Ramp-Up program) also serves middle schools. We therefore include this study for your information.

MetLife Foundation. (2011). Afterschool: Supporting career and college pathways for middle school age youth. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “In order to ensure that middle school youth are on a path toward higher education and careers, an early introduction to the importance of continuing education past high school is necessary. The middle school years are a vital time to teach the importance of college and career readiness and the linkages to success in life. This issue brief discusses how afterschool programs offer a key opportunity to expose middle school students to higher education options and career paths and to teach them skills that can unlock doors to future career prospects. The afterschool hours offer time for apprenticeships, guest speakers and project-based activities that are not always available during a school day focused on a core curriculum. Middle school is a critical time to ensure that youth are on a clear path to a productive future, and afterschool is an essential support to help middle schoolers move ahead to success in higher education and careers. This brief is a fourth in a series of four Issue Briefs examining critical issues facing middle school youth and the vital role afterschool programs play in addressing these issues.”

Schaefer, M. B., & Rivera, L. M. (2012). College and career readiness in the middle grades. Middle Grades Research Journal, 7(3), 51–66. Abstract retrieved from

From the abstract: “The development and implementation of a comprehensive and systemic career development program, The Career Institute, provided the mechanism through which one school community addressed students’ career development and college readiness needs while also attending to their academic and personal-social development. The Career Institute consisted of a series of interventions that helped middle grades students relate personal, social and academic considerations to college and career. The activities were accomplished during the school’s advisory program. In this qualitative research study, researchers analyzed data drawn from descriptive comments, observations and artifacts as well as students’ and advisory teachers’ surveys (Grades 6–9) across 2 years (2008–2009, 2009–2010). Findings indicated that after participating in Career Institute activities, students linked important pieces of their personal/social development to academic and career development. Students demonstrated an expanded and expanding sense of possibilities related to careers; became more specific and realistic about their career and college goals; and became more self-reflective in thinking about college and career opportunities. Advisory teachers believed that the Career Institute helped students prepare for college early and with a career goal. This study offers a grounded look at how one school helped middle grades students envision a future with postsecondary and career goals, and offers a model of collaboration to help other schools visualize ways to construct paths that foster and facilitate students’ college and career readiness.”

Schaefer, M. B. (2014). Facilitating college readiness through campus life experiences. Research in Middle Level Education, 37(7), 1–19. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “In a program called College Immersion, middle grades students spend up to one week on a local college campus, attending specially designed college classes and experiencing collegiate activities. This research study reports on findings related to two different college-middle school partnerships involved in a College Immersion program. Literature on college and career readiness suggests that the middle school years are critical for future academic success, especially for the kinds of vulnerable populations that are involved in this study. Taking middle grades students to college offers them authentic experiences that facilitate college readiness. After participation in a College Immersion program, students in both college-middle school partnerships demonstrated aspects of college readiness as outlined by Conley (2007). Following a weeklong experience of immersion in college life, students imagined a future that included post-secondary possibilities, developed college knowledge, and cultivated deeply positive feelings about college.”

Ting, S. R., Leung, Y. F., Stewart, K., Smith, A. C., Roberts, G. L., & Dees, S. (2012). A preliminary study of career education in middle school. Journal of Career and Technical Education, 27(2), 84–97. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This article reports a preliminary study on the Geosciences in Middle School, which was a career education program in the Southeastern U.S. focusing on science based on Super’s (1990) theory. The students (n = 80) were found to improve their interests in studying science, increase science knowledge, skills and awareness and highly satisfied with the program. Implications on career education programs in middle schools and research as well as limitations of the study were discussed.”

Wu-Rorrer, R. (2017). Filling the gap: Integrating STEM into career and technical education middle school programs. Technology & Engineering Teacher, 77(2), 8–15. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “The article offers information on closing the gap of present research in middle school career and technical education (CTE) and STEM programs. STEM education means integrating science, technology, engineering, and math into a single meta-discipline. According to the author, surveys of students have revealed lack of STEM career awareness and links to job opportunities.”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

(“College and career readiness/pipeline/awareness/preparedness/success”) AND (“middle school” or “middle grades” or “junior high”) AND (“programs” OR “research”)

Databases and Resources

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences. Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and PsychInfo.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When searching and selecting resources to include, we consider the criteria listed below.

  • Date of the Publication: References and resources published within the last 15 years, from 2003 to present, were included in the search and review.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally-funded organizations and academic databases. Priority is also given to sources that provide free access to the full article.
  • Methodology: Priority is given to the most rigorous study designs, such as randomized controlled trials and quasi-experimental designs, and we may also include descriptive data analyses, survey results, mixed-methods studies, literature reviews, or meta-analyses. Other considerations include the target population and sample, including their relevance to the question, generalizability, and general quality. Priority is given to publications that are peer-reviewed journal articles or reports reviewed by IES and other federal or federally-funded organizations. If there are many research reports available, we select those with the strongest methodology, or the most recent of similar reports. When there are fewer resources available, we may include a broader range of information.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the West Region (Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory West at WestEd. This memorandum was prepared by REL West under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0012, administered by WestEd. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.