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Undermeasuring Students’ Postsecondary Potential

Students no longer attend high school just to get a diploma and call it a day. They want to be prepared for postsecondary education or training programs that lead to a meaningful, well-paying career. And high schools are in a unique position to provide them with the skills and knowledge they need to take those next steps. Since the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, the majority of states have been incentivizing high schools to improve students’ preparation for postsecondary opportunities by holding schools accountable for ensuring students graduate prepared. Thirty-seven states have incorporated college and career readiness indicators into their school accountability systems.

But new findings show these indicators may be undermeasuring students’ postsecondary potential.

There is no shared definition of college and career readiness—let alone a uniform way to measure it—across states. States have developed different metrics and set different benchmarks for students. Moreover, most readiness measures states use are proxy measures meant to predict successful postsecondary outcomes (such as earning dual credits or an industry-recognized credential), as opposed to actual postsecondary data that provides evidence of success (such as enrollment in college-level, credit-bearing coursework). That’s why I compared statewide college and career readiness rates to college enrollment and remediation rates for recent high school graduates in my latest report, Undermeasuring: College and Career Readiness Indicators May Not Reflect College and Career Outcomes.

Inspired by the term “undermatching” (the phenomenon of highly qualified students not enrolling in selective colleges that match their abilities), I dubbed the pattern in my analyses  “undermeasuring,” because college and career readiness rates often underestimated the percentage of students who ultimately enrolled in college and the percentage of those students bypassing remedial college coursework. Specifically, in 34 states (including Washington, DC), the percentage of high school students deemed ready was lower than the percentage of graduates enrolling in college. Similarly, in 25 of the 28 states where remediation rate data was available, the percentage of students deemed prepared was lower than the percentage of graduates avoiding remediation. 

However, undermeasuring did not affect all states—or all student groups—similarly. 

First, the undermeasuring phenomenon was especially problematic in states where my data relied exclusively on college entrance exams. In 16 states (including Washington, DC), my readiness data was based on students meeting either ACT or SAT college-ready benchmarks. In all of these states except one, the percentage of students deemed ready was lower than the percentage of recent high school completers who enrolled in college, and nine of the 10 states with the largest readiness-enrollment gaps came from this group.

Comparing Readiness Rates to Postsecondary Enrollment Rates Among All Students, by State and Type of Readiness Measures

Second, and more alarmingly, states were more likely to undermeasure Black and Latinx students’ postsecondary potential than White students. A higher number of states reported lower readiness rates than college-going rates for Black and Latinx students than for White students. Even worse, the degree of undermeasuring in states was more severe for students of color. For example, the readiness-enrollment gap was over 30 percentage points for Black students in 11 states and for Latinx students in five states. In contrast, no state had that large of a gap for White students. 

Comparing Readiness Rates to Postsecondary Enrollment Rates for Black, Latinx, and White students, by State and Type of Readiness Measures

These two findings mean that readiness rates in states where my data only included performance on college entrance exams were an especially poor predictor of whether Black and Latinx students enrolled in college. 

So, how can states improve their college and career readiness indicators to lessen undermeasuring? 

To start, states should use readiness indicators that consider multiple options for students to demonstrate readiness, as opposed to relying on a single measure, because undermeasuring was less common in states that recognized many different early postsecondary opportunities. To help determine the best measures, states should examine each available data point related to postsecondary readiness (such as the percentage of students passing an AP exam, the percentage earning advanced diplomas, and more) compared to actual postsecondary outcomes (such as the percentage of students taking college-level coursework without remediation)—and select the measures most closely linked to successful outcomes beyond high school. 

Moreover, states could reduce undermeasuring by including postsecondary outcome measures within their college and career readiness indicators. Instead of making an informed prediction about students’ likelihood to succeed after high school, states can use actual evidence of that success. For example, Georgia’s readiness indicator considers the percentage of high school graduates entering the Technical College System of Georgia or the University System of Georgia without needing remediation.  

To thrive in today’s society, students need more than just a high school diploma. While education leaders have been expanding college and career pathways and measuring readiness in more comprehensive ways, many states’ readiness indicators are undermeasuring students’ postsecondary potential. By relying on multiple readiness options and including actual postsecondary outcomes, states will be able to reduce the mismatch between readiness rates and postsecondary success and paint a fuller picture of the quality of student preparation for college and careers.

Ziyu Zhou

Research and Data Specialist

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