Governors and legislative leaders in almost every state have made expanding and improving career and technical education (CTE) a top priority, yet the importance of quality data is often overlooked. The recent reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, which governs how states implement and expand access to CTE, offers a crucial opportunity to redesign related data systems. But to do so successfully, leaders must understand how they’re currently using CTE information and the barriers that prevent leveraging it in more effective ways.

To assist policymakers, Advance CTE, which represents state directors of career and technical education, partnered with a host of other organizations through the New Skills for Youth initiative to conduct a national survey of those directors. The response rate was impressive, with fifty-one state-level directors from forty-eight states, two territories, and Washington, D.C., responding. Based on these results, Advance CTE reports on the quality of data systems, identifies common challenges, and offers recommendations for improvement.

The report identifies four commonly used and broadly accepted indicators of career readiness at both the secondary and postsecondary level: completion of a work-based learning experience; attainment of a recognized postsecondary credential (including industry-recognized credentials and postsecondary degrees); completion of dual or concurrent enrollment; and successful transition to further education, employment, or the military. According to surveyed directors, nearly every state is able to collect individual data on these measures, though they are stronger at the secondary than postsecondary level. The majority of states are also able to disaggregate their data by career cluster, CTE program of study, and subgroups of students.

States use this information most frequently to inform technical assistance and program improvement efforts. For example, Idaho’s CTE Program Quality Initiative rewards excellent program performance by providing incentive funding. Most states also use data to inform state policy and planning, such as Arkansas, which referenced a Fordham study of post-program outcomes for career and technical education students to demonstrate to lawmakers the benefits of completing a sequence of high-quality CTE courses. States like Ohio also publicly report career readiness data via their accountability systems, though this is far more prevalent at the secondary level than the postsecondary. And although there are some outliers, most states seem reluctant to use this information for high-stakes decisions like linking funding with program quality. Less than half use it to transform career pathways.

The report identifies several reasons why states may not be fully leveraging their CTE data. One issue is that leaders don’t trust its quality. Many states rely on self-reported information to measure post-program outcomes. This includes surveys of former students or program participants, which are especially vulnerable to errors, misreporting, and low response rates. There are a large number of states that don’t actively validate and verify the accuracy of their career readiness measures. And many states have disparate and disconnected data systems, which makes it difficult to track young people during transitions from high school to postsecondary education and the workforce.

Improving the quality and reliability of CTE data is critical. The report recommends that states move away from self-reported information and toward more reliable sources. North Carolina does this by tracking the attainment of industry-recognized credentials through the institutions that grant them. States should also embed rigorous protocols for validating their data. Arkansas, for instance, requires schools to get employer validation when participants complete a work-based learning experience. And leaders should work to align definitions, measures, unique identifiers, and collection cycles across programs and disparate systems. Kentucky has done this since 2012, when it established an independent agency with authority over all education, workforce, and labor data.

As states implement the reauthorized Perkins Act, redesigning and aligning data systems will be vital. This reports offers valuable assistance.

SOURCE: “The State of Career Technical Education: Improving Data Quality and Effectiveness,” Advance CTE (April 2019).

Jessica Poiner - Fordham

Jessica Poiner is a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked as a high school English teacher in Memphis, Tennessee. While in Memphis, she taught for Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District. A native of Ohio, Jessica holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Baldwin-Wallace University. 

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