A 2017 report by Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that 30 million “good jobs” nationwide were held by the “middle”—workers who have less than a bachelor’s degree but more than a high school diploma. More than half of states have responded to the demand for this emerging workforce by including a new accountability measure in their ESSA plans: industry credentials, which can include short- and long-term certificates, licensures, badges, and more. But with accountability expectations at stake (not to mention the funds that go with it!), how can we ensure states and schools are incentivizing students to only participate in high-value industry-based credentials?

In response to this question, Education Strategy Group, alongside the Council of Chief State School Officers and Advance CTE, assembled a Career Readiness Expert Workgroup, comprising researchers and state and industry leaders. They focused on, among other things, how states can inspire and support students’ attainment of high-value credentials, incentivize schools and districts to prioritize them, and recognize and emphasize their importance.

Identifying industry-recognized credentials as high value is not enough to ensure student participation, say the report’s authors. States must also eliminate barriers to attainment and establish pathways rewarding students for participation. Promising policies include waiving certain costs like exam fees, increasing access to testing sites, and as Florida does, requiring districts to inform parents and students the value earned (wages, upward mobility, etc.) from industry-recognized credentials. Rewards can include credit hours and accolades for completing career-and-technical-education courses. Tennessee, for instance, gives postsecondary credit for earning certain high-value industry credentials, and in Ohio career and technical education is an alternative path to a high school diploma.

The authors also recommend that states incentivize schools and districts to offer high-value credential opportunities through additional funds, public praise, or boosts on accountability measures. Kansas, for one, offers a fixed sum to schools for each student who graduates with an industry-recognized credential, and Florida does something similar, but bases the additional funding amount on how valuable it deems the credential. Kentucky matches Florida’s approach, but awards schools points on its accountability system instead of more money.

The report’s third recommendation is that states positively recognize the attainment of industry-recognized credentials. They can do this by establishing career and technical education as a formal and respected pathway to career readiness, and by publicly celebrating the earning of credentials, much as they do with diplomas. Virginia sets a good example by separately reporting this in school accountability reports.

Overall, the report is valuable guide for state governments who want to evaluate, identify, and promote high-value credentials. The many state-specific examples will be especially helpful. But policymakers should careful to tailor any reform to their states’ and districts’ unique circumstances.

SOURCE: “Credential Currency: How States Identify and Promote Credentials of Value,” Education Strategy Group (September 2018).

Sophie Sussman is a research intern with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Currently, she is pursuing a master's degree in education policy at the George Washington University. She also has a bachelor's degree in early childhood education (prekindergarten-5) from the University of Georgia. Sophie's interests include curriculum, teacher quality and assessment as a basis of ensuring high quality education for all students.