In summary

Schools will look different this year, so educators should reset measures for student success to align with a set of more holistic outcomes.

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By Roman Stearns and

Roman Stearns is founder and executive director of Scaling Student Success, a California partnership among educators, policymakers, researchers and others,

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Mary Perry, Special to CalMatters

Mary Perry is an independent consultant with more than 25 years experience explaining California education policy,

California faces a major disruption to schooling as we’ve known it, which raises important questions for everyone involved with education in the state. 

What does it mean for young people to be prepared for future success? How can we anticipate their needs in a world that is so unpredictable, as we have learned over the past few months? Can existing knowledge provide educators and communities with confidence that we can equitably and holistically prepare young people for future success?

Several states have been more proactive than California, answering these questions by naming the competencies that they believe young people will need to succeed in college, career and civic life. 

As of 2014, 35 states had defined college and career readiness. Some have gone further and created a Graduate Profile – see examples from Virginia, South Carolina and New Mexico. These states articulate a broader definition of student success because they believe that the traditional academic core, in and of itself, is not enough. 

Graduate Profiles differ, but generally include academic preparation plus other essential learning outcomes:

  • 21st Century skills – i.e., collaboration, critical thinking, creativity and communication.
  • Social-emotional learning outcomes – i.e., self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, responsible decision-making, adaptability, resiliency, growth mindset, empathy, etc.
  • Civic engagement – i.e., a demonstration of contribution to the local community.

California is the largest and most diverse state in the nation. That makes defining student success and/or creating a Graduate Profile a daunting challenge. That said, back in 2012, two California-based organizations, ConnectED: The National Center for College and Career and WestEd drafted a research-based report, called “College and Career Readiness: What Does It Mean?” That was a good start and may have informed some measures of college and career readiness into the state’s reporting system. 

The California School Dashboard, for example, includes a College/Career Indicator that captures many measures, such as completion of a sequence of courses and performance on standardized tests. Unfortunately, the measures are limited to data that the state can easily and consistently collect from school districts. Moving forward, the state of California could blend prior efforts and create an updated definition.

Such state actions will take time. Meanwhile, a growing number of California school districts are engaging their local communities to create their own Graduate Profiles based on local values and circumstances. Several of those districts are now working together, through a new partnership called Scaling Student Success, to assure that their community-wide definitions of student success play out in local classrooms. 

The reality that schools will look different this year makes that work more pressing and also provides an opportunity to accentuate, value and celebrate the essential competencies students already are being called upon to demonstrate during this pandemic.

As we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, local and state education leaders are imagining a new way forward. Perhaps now is the perfect time to reset accountability measures to align with a set of more holistic and equitable outcomes for our young people. Doing so could reinforce recent recommendations by State Board of Education president, Linda Darling-Hammond, by opening opportunities to emphasize authentic learning and assessments, ensuring supports for social and emotional development, and redesigning schools for stronger relationships.

In the near term, what if California school districts made outcomes such as creativity, self-management and resiliency a focal point of their plans for learning in the coming year? What if the state used this same opportunity to begin defining student success more broadly based on research-based indicators, rather than limiting itself to the most accessible measures? 

Our young people deserve an education system that fully prepares them for the challenges ahead. We cannot allow bureaucracy, lack of imagination, or personal and organizational comfort to limit the learning outcomes and future opportunities that define success for the students we serve. Let’s take a stand and really prepare our children for the future.

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