While the ubiquitous term “college and career readiness” assumes that twelve years of compulsory education could adequately prepare a student for both postsecondary and workplace settings, we know far more about readiness for the former than the latter.
A recent working paper from CALDER presents a descriptive analysis of one pathway to career readiness: industry recognized credentials (IRCs)—how prevalent they are, the characteristics of students who complete them, and how credentials in different industries attract different types of students. IRCs are awarded to individuals who demonstrate competency in a specific career through participating in a career-training experience or by earning an adequate score on a technical skills exam. Although IRCs can also be earned by adults, researchers Joshua Eagan and Corey Koedel focus on high-school students in their analysis.
They use administrative and IRC data on all twelfth graders in Missouri during the 2018–19 school year, since their pre-analysis indicated that the vast majority of IRCs are completed during a student’s senior year. They use middle school test scores to document selection into the program by achievement. They also compare their IRC findings against other college-ready programs including Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs (or AP and IB, which are grouped together) and dual credit and dual enrollment (or DC and DE) courses. These are also grouped together for ease of analysis, although important differences have been documented between the two.
The researchers find that 9 percent of students in Missouri completed an IRC during their senior year, whereas completion rates for AP-IB courses and DC-DE courses are much higher, with 19 and 31 percent completing at least one course in these categories, respectively. The achievement level of the average IRC student is only slightly above the statewide mean, unlike AP-IB and DC-DE courses, which tend to draw disproportionately from the top end of the achievement distribution. These other college readiness programs serve more advantaged students as measured by their low-income, special needs, or English learner status, but there is virtually no selection into IRCs along those dimensions—nor by gender. The only observed characteristic by which IRC completion gaps exist is by race and ethnicity, as White students are more likely to complete IRCs than students in other race groups. Specifically, compared to their White peers, students in other racial and ethnic groups are 3–6 percentage points less likely to complete IRCs. The analysts find that completion gaps that exist by race and ethnicity are driven by both within- and across-school differences.
Among the fifty-five IRCs awarded in Missouri, Eagan and Koedel find that some attract high achievers with clear college intentions. These include business management and administration, as well as information technology. Other fields primarily attract students with low test scores who go on to enter the workforce directly from high school rather than enrolling in a postsecondary institution. These include architecture and construction, manufacturing, and transportation and logistics. Women and men are similarly likely to complete an IRC, but they are sorted strongly into different types, with men overrepresented in manufacturing, transportation, and construction and women overrepresented in education and health sciences. This gender sorting accords with previous research. The fields of agriculture, health science, transportation, business management, and hospitality and tourism account for just over two thirds of all IRCs completed in the study year.
Despite the relatively lower number of participants overall, a broader swath of Missouri high school students participates in earning industry-recognized credentials than in comparable college-readiness programs like DE, DC, and AP. This means that career-affiliated programs deserve as much study as their more examined (and generally higher-status) counterparts. Of vital interest would be the comparative value of different IRCs in terms of job placement, potential for advancement, and earnings potential over time. We need more and better evidence before we can determine whether IRC attainment serves students like it should and whether all subgroups could benefit.
SOURCE: Joshua Eagan and Cory Koedel, “Career Readiness in Public High Schools: An Exploratory Analysis of Industry Recognized Credentials,” CALDER Working Papers (September 2021).